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Co-operative Roleplay: An Interview with Ian Millington
by Andy Kitkowski
I've always been interested in different ways to play those RPGs we all know and love- Messing with rules, different styles of play and the like. About a year and a half ago on the RPGNet forums someone had posted a link to essays concerning something called "Collaborative Roleplaying". Soon after, these were linked to from other RPG-related mailing lists that I was involved with. My curiosity piqued, I read through these essays, written by a Mr. Ian Millington.
I was completely floored by the essays "Principles of Collaborative Role-Playing" and the demonstrative guide entitled "Starting to Collaborate". These described a way to turn the roleplaying experience on its ear and play these games in a new way. Collaborative Roleplaying, simply put, is roleplaying with either no GM or a GM whose roles (as director, chairperson, rules lawyer, etc) are diminished and spread amongst the other players. An example of limited Collaborative Roleplaying is playing a game where anyone can direct the actions of, or speak/act through, the NPCs in a game. Another example would be where the GM (as storyteller) would switch every so often, allowing other players to direct the way the story turns. An example of even more collaboration would be a "Freeform" gaming session where "everyone is the GM" (or, alternately, "no one is the GM"), with one chairperson to coordinate everybody (to keep things consistent). Further information on dividing the GM's responsibilities can be found at http://www.agon.com/ergo/collaborate.html.
Thought lost forever after the old Ergo sites were removed, thanks to the help of a friend I not only found the documents that I mentioned above (now at www.collaborativeroleplay.org), but I managed to get a hold of Ian Millington's Email address as well. He graciously agreed to explain Collaborative Roleplaying (hereafter abbreviated as CoRP), his ERGO project, and how to make it work for your games.
ANDY: What is collaborative roleplaying?
IAN: Essentially collaborative roleplaying is a form of roleplaying which has no GM. This doesn't mean it isn't structured or controlled, all the things that the GM did are still done, but either by everyone, or by different people at different times. Because there is no GM, there are no PCs or NPCs, each player plays multiple characters of different importance, and some characters get passed around occasionally. Not being tied to a particular person's responses allows a flexible form of play, across different media (play-by-email, face-to-face, epistolic, conference call!), at the same time or in sequence. We have found particularly that with more players actively contributing to all aspects of the game, it supports very much more complex storylines, plots and scenarios.
Most of all, however, collaborative roleplaying is about collaboration, a group of people who have fun by making the whole game the best it can be, rather than trying to maximize the payback for their one character. It is called collaborative roleplay after collaborative storytelling, but CoRP adds the mechanics, the scenario and the challenge of roleplaying.
ANDY: Could you give us an example of CoRP?
IAN: In one of the scenarios that will be available with the new edition of Ergo, there is a university research lab in which some of the characters work (the other principal characters are stereotypical conspiracy theorists). Part of the lab is sealed off by a quasi-military agency. The first of the two stories in the game is played in character, in real-time, by email: the characters discuss what they have seen, and the implications, up to the point where they decide to go investigate. The second story is played face to face. The group have a map (since they know the layout of the lab), and they know some of the security systems in place. They have to plan and carry out the infiltration, and react to what is there. This game is well suited for a group that meets for a long time once in a while, they play the first story in real-time over the month or so before they meet, and then the second story takes 4-8 hours to play through.
Another of the scenarios has a fantasy setting. The principal characters are highly skilled espionage agents sent into a city-state to cause a revolution and allow their master to fill the power vacuum. There are a whole set of finely balanced forces in the city that need playing against one another and carefully orchestrating. This game can be played by letter or email, as the agents secretly co-ordinate their actions, and in a group, for whatever action is needed. Each player controls a principal character, and also acts as the 'guide' for one of the city's factions - able to describe its workings and give more scenario detail. This game is suited for a group. That plays weekly or fortnightly. They pass secret messages (in codes that cannot be broken) and coordinate actions all week, then meet to carry them out once a week.
This kind of media-switching, always on, style would give a GM a nervous breakdown, but it can be played quite easily with no GM. Collaborative roleplay is good for players who are busy, who work, or for whom roleplaying isn't their main leisure activity - it lets everyone move at their own pace, and can stand long periods without play. It is also suited for intelligent, literate players for whom the setting, story and feel are important, who enjoy the challenge of thinking themselves into and out of difficult situations, and who like the freedom to add backstory and detail.
ANDY: Both these adventures sound quite interesting- But since there is no central GM, everyone has to play the role of the "bad guy" or "enemy" as well...
How does that work? Is it difficult? For me, I imagine collaborative roleplaying as (sorry for the weak metaphor) playing both sides of the chessboard with a group of people. But since everyone is, at the core, on the "white" team, isn't it hard to move the "black" side effectively against them?
IAN: Your metaphor is right and I like it.
The way out of the problem is to realize that you aren't trying to 'win' the game of chess. You are trying to play the perfect game of chess. When I played chess regularly I used to play against myself, playing the board into interesting configurations and seeing if I could play my way out of it. Playing CoRP often involves trying to maximize the drama of a situation and taking enjoyment from being clever enough to play out of it. Of course when I played my way out of 'impossible' chess situations, I didn't play black to the best of my abilities, but I played it hard enough to be challenging. And besides: the good guys have to win in the end, don't they?
Take the infiltration scenario I mentioned. Getting into the restricted area is tough. Players will suggest a method, and normally someone will find an objection, someone else will solve that problem, and so on. Those objections actually BECOME the defenses of the place, and make it very difficult to get into. For example the team say, 'we need to kill the power to the lights', and someone says 'but they have an emergency generator', so 'John, you knock out the emergency generator', but 'that has a security camera on it', and so on. It is very easy to do this kind of thing.
When things get going, skill checks invariably fail and things start going wrong. Having discussed the problems and issues in some length (this is one of the purposes of the emailing story before the infiltration part of the scenario), everyone knows the consequences: the guard watching the monitor sees John by the generator, or the lights don't go out when the main generator is jammed. Okay, so the guard would probably hit the panic button, and instead the group decides he comes to investigate. But this is exactly the kind of weakening the opposition that the GM does all the time anyway.
ANDY: Do you use any sorts of tools to aid in collaborative roleplay? (Perhaps special kinds of character sheets, sheets for working on as a group, etc)
IAN: Character sheets are the basic sheets for the game mechanics we are playing. I did make up some 'planning' sheets for scenes, to help everyone see what was going on. But I don't think that really helps, it is better to let things emerge on their own.
In addition maps, feelies and props are as useful as they are in any game. The advantage with CoRP is that anyone who feels creative can make them.
ANDY: When did you first experiment with collaborative roleplaying?
IAN: The bare bones of CoRP were designed in 1997 in a couple of hours on the way back from a roleplaying day. I was chatting to the GM on the way back about the way our games worked. We noticed that it was better when responsibilities for interpreting dice roles was given to the player.
This train of thought grew into dissecting what it was that a GM actually did, and then asking, why can't everyone do that?
ANDY: How were your efforts received at first by the people you played with?
IAN: The first game we played with an extensive CoRP section was an anti-terrorism thriller with lots of double agents and the like. Out of the 3 stories in the scenario, the first two were GMed. We used two teams with two GMs in different rooms, to see what would happen with simultaneous games going on. The two groups of players didn't know each other's characters, and so the sense of (character) mistrust was rife.
The last story had a chairman, but no real GM, both of the previous GMs played a single character. All the players got on with it themselves, saying what they were doing, grabbing other players to have secret conversations, commandeering aircraft, all with very limited interference from either the game mechanics or the chairman. It is still talked about in my group as the best one-day roleplaying game we've done.
On the other hand its always easy to get good feedback from your friends, so I should have expected that. It is the response of folks who I didn't know that reassured me this was the right way to go.
ANDY: Did you ever run a session of collaborative roleplaying that just never went anywhere, or where the players didn't "get it" (that is to say, "it sucked")?
IAN: I have done a few games over the internet. Some of them have been pretty poor, because I didn't really like the players, and there wasn't a lot of trust. Trust is important and so is a dash of humility. Players can often get in a strop because their idea or character didn't get done exactly as they wanted it.
ANDY: Why did it go that way?
IAN: Some players are use to seeing their character as 'them' in the game: Because in a normal RPG it is their only way to influence the game, they get very attached to it: They are avataristic. Avatarism doesn't work with collaborative roleplay, because you can influence the game in lots of ways.
It doesn't make sense for a GM to get too attached to one NPC and become stroppy if that NPC gets injured. In the same way it doesn't make sense for CoRP players to get too attached to their characters.
In my experience this is the only thing that people don't get. And it makes CoRP impossible.
ANDY: It must be hard for most players to do this at first, since all the rest of the roleplaying genre involves creating a character to act as a persona. Do you know of any "techniques", "guides", or "therapeutic things to say" to help starting CoRP players disengage themselves from the characters they create, thus allowing better CoRP play?
It is hard. The word is 'avatarism' - which means the character is the players representative in the game world, through which they control the flow of the game. A strongly avataristic game allows the player to ONLY influence the world through their character. Ergo is a roleplaying game with very minimal avatarism.
As for helping folks, the best way is always to show. I remember trying to roleplay with an interested friend for the first time - to start with they did nothing, because they didn't know what they were allowed to do. We told her that you can do anything you chose, but some things are more suitable (i.e. 'in character') than others. She got into it when other people started to play.
In the same way CoRP induces option paralysis on conventional roleplayers, they can do anything - but not everything is suitable (i.e. 'in character' - when playing a character, or 'in style' - when dealing with events in the world). It's best to see it in action.
Having said that, players have had Ergo successes without being 'taught' by me. I wrote an article called Starting to Collaborate' that various people have found useful. It leads you through a set of small changes, each one fairly small, that take you from conventional roleplay to CoRP.
Its just occurred to me that one thing to suggest might be to play a character as if it were an NPC and you were a GM. You rarely get involved then, because the character is a means to tell a story.
ANDY: Speaking of characters, who decides when to introduce new characters according to the "metarules" that you commonly play by? Can anyone just introduce characters whenever they want to?
IAN: There are no real metarules for introducing characters, they naturally suggest themselves:
Principal Characters (usually one per player) are key to the story - They are like the PCs and are generated in the same kind of way before a game begins.
Minor Characters are suggested by the scenario. Mostly they are made before the game starts (same way that a GM would build NPCs that they expect to need).
Extras come and go - a barman in an inn, the guard on an airlock, etc. These are generated when they are needed. Sometimes players want to add extra characters in a scene. This has never been a problem.
ANDY: Once a character creates a character, is it his or her responsibility to roleplay that character?
IAN: Usually the player who creates a principal character sticks with them, minor characters are sometimes the same, but can be swapped around. A corrupt official may crop up in one scene with two of the principals and another scene with a different set of principals - they would be played by a different player in each case. Unlike conventional RPGs there is no need for all the principals to be in each scene (since the PC is not only way a player gets to contribute), so minor characters get passed around - Which often makes them more interesting. Extras tend to be played by anyone, although it can cause problems if everyone wants to be a particularly interesting extra. Ergo enforces that only one player can play a character at a time - but the responsibility can be passed around as needed.
ANDY: What happens when a player's introduces a new character, and then that character has to interact with that player's main character/hero? Does that player "talk to herself"?
IAN: If one of the characters is less important, they are passed to someone else. If each player controls more than one principal character then this becomes a problem, just like in a normal RPG with multiple PCs per player. I don't think it works too well in either case.
ANDY: You HAVE to have had situations where people even in groups that you trust come to love their principal character... What happens when another player tries to direct another player's original character? Is there ever any resistance (ie "My character would NEVER do that...")?
IAN: We play it so that characters who are emotionally invested in are played by a single player. This isn't against my vision of CoRP at all - it makes sense that for detailed characters, one player is in charge. It hasn't come up that a minor character caused this problem - because they are designed to be disposed of. If they become too important, then they basically get treated like a principal character.
Having said that there are times when a player is not around and their character gets played. In conventional roleplaying the GM treats the character as an NPC. In CoRP the same thing happens, effectively.
When I said a player shouldn't be too attached to their character - I didn't mean in terms of someone else playing it, but in terms of that character coming and going through the game. Quite often a principal character will not be around for a good chunk of play, and their player will have other things to do.
I should also stress that Ergo's distinctions about characters (principals, minors and extras) is only an aid to structure, of course. There are plenty of grey areas and in reality most characters are somewhere along a scale.
ANDY: Does a character's creator have any say in the way that other players use that character?
IAN: There is no rule in Ergo that says who gets final word about what each character does. For anything in the game that needs to be detailed and comes up repeatedly (i.e. characters, locations, races, galaxies) Ergo suggests that one player be the 'guide'. They can answer questions, give descriptions and this gives a natural influence over the outcome.
ANDY: What are a few of your favorite RPGs? Why?
IAN: The RPG I play most often is Call of Cthulhu, and I would have to say it is my favourite. It is the setting that makes it work - I love the combination of historical detail and fantasy. I have never noticed the mechanics, which for me means they do their job well. I particularly like the Mountains of Madness campaign for Cthulhu - for the reasons that other's hated it. Most of the campaign is historical fiction, no baddies in sight, then at the end is an overarching, ultimate horror. Great fun.
I have always chopped and changed mechanics and settings, so the system for me is less important than the setting and scenario. The systems I really like are those that are intwined with their setting. I have a soft spot for Middle Earth (MERP), and the White Wolf games (Vampire, Werewolf and Mage), although I am not a big fan of the Werewolf / Vampire genre. I am currently playing a Golden Heroes game, which isn't great, but the mechanics are nicely integrated with the setting.
My approach has always been rules-light. The group I have played with on-and-off for the last 14 years has always liked really detailed character sheets with simple mechanics - we went through a phase of creating characters with Rolemaster, but using no real mechanics in game play. We started out with Dungeons and Dragons, before AD&D was around, and I still have my battered copies of the five D&D rule sets. We have always been into creating our own mechanics, and many games have been played with them.
The game mechanics I like the most is, without doubt, FUDGE. Watching it evolve on rec.games.design I felt that this was a great approach - a game that is used to make playable games: a meta-game. It was the first meta-game I saw, and it certainly inspired me.
ANDY: Do you notice that any of these games work better (rule-wise or genre-wise) or worse for collaborative roleplaying?
IAN: For obvious reasons CoRP doesn't work very well with mysteries and exploration genres. I've never tried it with Call of Cthulhu, but I would imagine you would have to choose more 'research and destory' scenarios rather than haunted house crawls. It does work well with tactical or strategic games, so espionage and infiltration is a good genre to go with.
The biggest change to gameplay seems to be that social and interpersonal interactions become deeper and more central to the story. I don't know of any games whose scenarios stress this aspect, since most RPG are about action.
In CoRP you often need to rapidly generate a couple of characters to act as extras in the scene. Rules-light systems are good for this, or simple scripts on a computer that can build characters.
FUDGE works very well indeed for a couple of reasons. Firstly it is lightweight, and easily adaptable. Secondly it has the concept of general and specific skills. You can have a skill for combat, for example, and then a different one for swordplay, and yet another for fighting with your favourite short sword. This means that the extras in a scene can just have the general skills, at one extreme just a few skills such as 'combat', 'thinking', 'social interaction', whereas principal characters can have detailed skill hierarchies.
ANDY: What do you think of the RPGs that you see coming out these days? Anything that you've particularly taken note of?
IAN: Nothing has really struck me very recently. I don't keep up with new systems very well, but I buy up new Call of Cthulhu stuff, and there has been some very good (and pretty poor) modules out in the last 2 years.
There is a great (Collaborative) game, De Profundis (Hogshead press), out around Christmas, that I've had the privilege of seeing draft work on.
It strikes me that with the LotR movie, there's lots of scope for some tie-in MERP stuff - I'd like to see some better MERP modules (those few I have seen have been pretty poor).
ANDY: What do you plan to do with your new site, collaborativeroleplay.org, in the future? What is its purpose?
IAN: I originally got the domain name as somewhere to put the pages for my collaborative roleplaying game, Ergo. I figured it would be good to put links to all the other games that are being built around the same principles: roleplaying games with no GM. I get a few emails a week from folks talking about collaborative roleplaying in various forms, so it will be good to have a portal for resources. There will be link pages, the Ergo resources page, and a list of interested people. I'll update it as new things come to light.
I don't have much time to spend, however, so it isn't supposed to be a major new role-playing site.
ANDY: Please tell me a little bit about your RPG creation, ERGO.
IAN: Ergo is a roleplaying game that makes collaborative roleplaying practical. It has no simulation mechanics of its own, but describes how to structure and plan a game in a workable way.
Ergo was written in response to feedback I received from a (deliberately provocative) essay I wrote on roleplaying called 'Avatarism and the Myth of the Red Queen'. I observed that a better avatar fix could be got from computer games (especially 1st / 3rd person games such as Quake / Tomb Raider), since they allow the player to influence the world at a much lower level of consciousness. Even if they are consciously less flexible, they are cognitively more realistic. I claimed that this is why roleplaying has only a fraction of its pre-home-computer-era players. I suggested that those of us who remain are either a) stubborn, or b) not motivated by avatarism. Therefore it would be better to roleplay without such a strong bond between player and character.
I got challenged, rightly so, to put my money where my mouth was, and show how it could be done. So I wrote Ergo.
I don't think it worked very well, because it was more of an exploration than an exposition, but it started some balls rolling, and there are more and more people playing, designing and releasing CoRP games now.
ANDY: When do you expect to have the next version of ERGO complete, if ever?
IAN: I have a rough personal aim for the end of the year. I am doing a few hours a week on it and it is shaping up nicely. I am reluctant to make any claims for a release date, though, because I have little free time and I don't want to be dishonest about my ability to deliver.
ANDY: What do you want to do with ERGO for the new edition?
IAN: The new edition contains a very short summary of the first draft - the key concepts and structures that make up Ergo, without any of their implications or more complex concepts. This weighs in at a ten or so pages.
In addition there are three scenarios that are optimized for CoRP. The best way to learn is to play - so the scenarios are the key to the new edition. Depending how things progress only two of these may be in the release, but they will be enough to get going and see it in action.
Since I wrote the first draft of Ergo I have become less interested in the theory of roleplaying, and more focused on reality. I was doing my PhD when I wrote Ergo 1, and I had my head in theory-land, articulating my ideas and the collaborative roleplaying concept. I feel more earthed now in my job and so Ergo 2 is about making it as easy as possible for people to play.
ANDY: If time were not an issue, what sorts of RPG projects would you like to become involved with in the future?
IAN: I am happy chugging along with collaborative roleplaying - answering emails, writing Ergo, designing scenarios. I am certainly not looking to work with paper and pen roleplaying games full time or professionally. It is likely to always be a hobby.
I enjoy scenario design immensely. I occasionally run one day roleplaying events with loads of feelies (photographs, sound effects, etc), setting and teasers. I get the most enjoyment from creating and running these events, but they are frighteningly time consuming.
And most importantly I would like the opportunity to play more often!
ANDY: Anything to say to the RPG community at large?
IAN: I think ERGO is all I have to say, to be honest. I am not a revolutionary, and I am not trying to change the games people enjoy. I just think there are other ways to have fun. If you are interested - have a go - if you think it will never work - have a go, if it doesn't appeal - stick with what does.
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