Life, Death, and What Happens in Between

posted by Marc

I wrote Epitaph to be accessible to all sorts of players — people who’ve played a hundred story games, people who chose Epitaph as their first game, people who feel comfortable in the spotlight, and people who prefer to listen. My goal was to create something anyone could play. That’s why I designed the game the way I did. I want to talk a bit about what you do on your turn, after the setup steps are complete and it’s time to dive into the life, death, and legacy of the main character (the Departed).

On your turn

The timeline-building stage of the game lasts as long as you want; each round, players decide together if they want to play another round or go to the epilogue. When it’s your turn, you have your choice of making a Snapshot, Scene, or Remembrance.

A Snapshot is a summary of an event in the Departed’s life and a description of a single moment from that event, as though we’re looking through a photo album and telling little stories about the pictures we see. They are the most straightforward method for adding new events to the fiction because you simply say what you want to have happen and boom, it happened! 

A Scene is a role-played conversation between players that takes place during an event in the Departed’s life. Playing a Scene in Epitaph gives you a chance to hear the voices of the people you’ve been talking about and see how they interact with each other.

A Remembrance is an honest description of a shared experience given from the perspective of someone who knew the Departed. Remembrances are a truly special way to add detail to the Departed’s life, because they let you do something the other two moves don’t: be biased. You play as someone who knew the Departed and you talk about an experience you shared from that character’s perspective, which means you can throw as much shade or praise as you want.

Why it works

I believe Epitaph is a stronger game for having three possible moves on your turn instead of one. 

First reason? You always have a choice, and all three choices are meaningful. Unlike games where you complete setup steps and then do the same thing on your turn every time, Epitaph always presents you with three options. None is better or worse than another, and none becomes off-limits after use or stops being effective at some point during play. You can always do any of them, and you’ll always be adding to the fiction in a substantive way.

Second reason? Sometimes you’re just not in the mood to deliver an emotional monologue as the Departed’s ex-girlfriend, or play the scene where she came out to her parents. And that’s fine. Epitaph’s three-move structure accommodates varying levels of comfort and energy. Wherever you are at the moment your turn arrives, there’s a move to suit you. Just want to add something to the timeline, no questions asked? Snapshot. Want to set up a juicy scenario and then not be the Departed (that’s right–you don’t have the play the Departed in Scenes you create) and watch the sparks fly? Scene. Got some strongly-worded opinions of the Departed to share? Remembrance. Snapshots, Scenes, and Remembrances ask you to approach the fiction in different ways, leaving it to you to decide which feels best in the moment.

Third reason? Each option creates a different sort of fictional result, which makes your story round and robust. Snapshots allow you to build events from whole cloth, which is useful for “fleshing out” the timeline or when you want to make sure a certain thing happens a certain way. Scenes are exploratory; you won’t know what’s going to happen before they start, so you have a chance to be surprised. They’re also more personal because you hear the voices of the characters. Remembrances are a chance to expand your understanding of the social world your Departed inhabited. You gain insight that you can’t obtain through Snapshots and Scenes. 

Why I made it this way

I’ve played a lot of story games. I got into the hobby back in 2010 thanks to my wife Caroline (one of the very first things we did together after we met was go to Story Games Seattle, the local meetup) and haven’t stopped gaming since. My experience with many, many different game systems has helped me develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t, and so the design choices I made for Epitaph were intentional. They also took a lot of work and iteration–I’m not remotely capable of designing a great game on the first try! 

So why did I make Epitaph like this? The main reason is because it’s fun. I tried a version of the game where all you did on your turn was make Scenes, and the only difference between each type of Scene was when it happened. It was okay, but not particularly exciting. When I came up with the other two moves (after many laps around my office building on breaks), I knew I’d landed on something special. 

But there’s more to it than just entertainment value. I structured the game this way because of my backgrounds in teaching and story gaming.

As a teacher, I know the value of scaffolding–that is, putting supports in place to help students slowly and methodically reach new heights of understanding. I employ this same practice in story game design. If I ask you to come up with a piece of fiction–say, how the Departed died–it’s much easier to do if I give you a series of questions to guide you toward a good answer. That’s scaffolding.

I know I’m pretty outgoing and extroverted most of the time, and like I said, I’ve played a lot of tabletop RPGs. When I sit down at a table of strangers to play a story game–as I’ve done often as a facilitator at meetups and cons–I’m rarely anxious or uncomfortable thanks to my personality and level of experience. But I know others don’t feel the same way I do, and it was vital to me that I make the game accessible to all kinds of players. That’s why you get three choices of moves and each move lets you do different things: no matter what your level of comfort or experience is, you can contribute meaningfully to the story. You’ll never feel like the group is “carrying” you through the game. I want everyone who plays Epitaph to feel like they made the story just as much as anyone else at the table, and I hope the way I’ve set up the moves makes that happen. 

So there you have it: Epitaph, as she is played! I hope you’ll give the game a try and let me know what you think! 

Epitaph is on Kickstarter until October 6th!

 

Author / Actor / Audience

Posted by Marc

At any given time when you’re playing a story game–beyond the trappings of the setting, the characters, and the mechanics–you’re performing one of three functions: author, actor, or audience. Most games do not explicitly tell you this is what you’re doing, but nearly all include the roles in some form. Knowing how these functions work can improve your ability to scrutinize game designs, so let’s dive in and see what we can uncover. 

The Three Functions

You’re an author when you’re creating fiction. This includes things like making characters and locations, describing facts about the game world, and explaining what your characters do or how events happen. The plot of the story also falls under this umbrella. You’re exercising authorship whenever you decide the direction a story will go, such as when you have a character make a certain choice or when you bring a new situation into the game.

Authorship is foundational to story games. It is what makes them story games and not, well… just stories. When you read, watch, or listen to a story, you’re only the audience. If you read a script out loud with or for others, you can also be an actor while being the audience. But unless you write or create fiction yourself, you’re not an author.

You’re an actor when you portray a character. Most roleplaying games ask you to do this at least some of the time. Whenever the other players call you by a name that’s not your own, you’re probably acting in the role of a character from the story. Acting in this sense is improvisational, not scripted, and is much closer to “having a conversation” than “putting on a show”.

Strong acting skills are not generally a prerequisite for a successful story game. As I like to tell players when I’m introducing them to the hobby, “This isn’t improv theater. Nobody is here to judge your performance.” Your ability to portray a character isn’t the focus of the game, nor does it affect the outcome of the story. You can get away with a lot by saying things like, “And then the queen gives a rousing speech that inspires and motivates her army!”, thereby skipping the acting entirely. But you’re still called to act when you are asked to think like your character and say what they do.

You’re the audience when you observe and enjoy the unfolding story and the characters you’ve made within it. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’re passively observing; as a member of the audience before a live performance, you have the ability to influence the outcome based on your reaction to what’s happening. Whenever you listen to the other players weaving new elements into the tapestry of your shared tale, you’re the audience. 

The audience role is essentially the default. If you’re not actively answering questions or making up new fiction, and you’re not portraying a character, then you’re the audience. You as a viewer have ideas and preferences for how the story might go, and while you cannot influence the direction of the story very much as the audience, you’ll have considerable ability to do so as soon as you take on one of the other roles again. 

Three Functions in Action

These three roles are neither static nor mutually exclusive. As you play a story game, you rapidly swap hats, often within a single scene or even a single sentence. This is where the magic happens: you can simultaneously be acting, authoring new fiction, and enjoying the contributions you and the other players are making. It’s a very special experience and one that, at least for me, makes story gaming compelling in a way few other mediums can match.

I’ll start with my own games as an example. The three functions appear in both Eden and the forthcoming Epitaph. In Eden, players are authors when they create the Garden and their characters, and when they decide how the Garden and its inhabitants change over time. In Epitaph, they’re authors when they work together to create the Departed, when they build Moments on the timeline, and when they dive into Snapshots, Scenes, and Remembrances.

Yet even as they author new fiction, players can also be actors. The line becomes insubstantial any time a player is portraying a character (or animal in Eden), because everything that character says and does is being invented at the moment the player says it–they’re writing the plane as they fly it, to twist a metaphor. This is one of the main things that sets story game roleplaying apart from stage acting–in a theater production, everyone knows what to say because they have a script. No scripts in story games! (unless it’s Daniel Wood’s My Daughter, the Queen of France, and even then the joy is in rewriting the “script” through iterative scenes)

The audience role is happening throughout play too. Every time it’s not your turn in Eden or Epitaph, you’re watching what the other players create and enjoying the new directions they take the story in. And even when you are in the midst of authoring or acting, you’re also watching yourself and thinking about your own contributions. If you’ve ever been suddenly struck with an idea for your next turn that’s so good you go, “Ooh!”, you know the feeling I mean: being excited about what you’ve just created is one of the richest joys of story gaming.

This is the most unique feature of tabletop roleplaying: the ability to be your own audience and to be thrilled by your own ideas alongside those of the other players. Good movies, good music, good books, all of these can stir powerful emotions in you–but you probably didn’t create them. You simply enjoyed them. With a story game, you can invent brand new things and then turn around and immediately admire what you’ve made. 

Taking It Further

When it comes to utilizing the three functions, most story games strike a balance, but certain games focus more on one than the others. For example, Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year does not have players roleplay as specific characters, so the acting function is downplayed and the authorship increased. In games like Jake Richmond’s Sea Dracula, acting and audience take the stage while the author function is minimized. This goes even further in LARPs with pre-built scenarios such as Jason Morningstar’s Juggernaut or Kathryn Hymes and Hakan Seyalioglu’s Sign. In these sorts of games, the emphasis is almost entirely on acting, as the creation of the characters and story is already complete before the game starts, with only a few details left up to the players. To be clear, players are still authoring the story–they’re just doing it with more constraints due to the already-existing fiction.

Most games don’t tell you when you’re engaging in one of these functions, but some do. The best example I can think of is Ben Robbins’s Follow. When resolving a Challenge, players are first asked to judge what the Fellowship is doing from the perspective of their main character. This is author and actor together, as players try to imagine what their character thinks and feels. Then we zoom out for our second choice: as a player, do you feel like the characters did what was needed to accomplish the Challenge? This is an author and audience level question, because you are examining the characters’ actions you’ve just invented to see if they meet some (admittedly arbitrary and fictional) standards for success. Follow explicitly asks you to step out of the story and think like an author, which I think is why this stage of play works so well: it draws your attention to your function and grants you space to examine what you’ve just made.

So where does all this lead? When it comes to game design, understanding these functions allows you to zoom out of the game a bit and analyze each step or phase. A talented designer is able to identify what they’re asking their players to do at each stage of play and tailor the rules accordingly. When you want your players to be authors, give them the tools they need to make choices that will create a better story. When you want them to be actors, give them the structure they need to step into that role as easily as possible. When you want them to be the audience, make it easy for them to enjoy that experience and focus on the story.

Let me give you a couple examples of good design choices that enhance players’ ability to fill these roles. In Caroline Hobbs’s Downfall, players are asked to come up with six Traditions within the culture of the game’s setting, the Haven. But instead of simply giving that instruction and letting players loose, Caroline lightens the creative load by having them choose culture ideas from a list, tie those ideas to the Flaw, and create the Traditions in two steps: behavior or belief first, then symbol second (but of another player’s culture item). This process makes authorship so much easier because it doesn’t ask players to come up with ideas completely out of nowhere.

Similarly, helping players with acting is important for any roleplaying game. Jason Morningstar’s Fiasco does this with graceful simplicity. Each player receives a predefined Relationship with the characters to their left and right, and at least one pair of players also have a Need that both their characters share. These small details are actually critical to the game’s success, because they give players a baseline for how to act. “Talk about the crime you want to commit” is all well and good, but “talk about the crime, except you’re also bitter exes” is easier to step into because we as players know instinctively what kinds of things people with that sort of connection might say to one another. 

Overall, it’s not so important to be able to identify which function you’re filling while playing a game. But if you’re a game designer or are critiquing a design, it can be useful to identify which role players are being asked to step into and then analyze how the game’s rules support player success in that role. Does the game provide guiding questions or principles to help players be better authors? Does it give them clear frameworks for how to act when they’re called to role-play? Does it invite them to be better audience members by making it easy for them to focus on what’s happening and to “yes, and” what others have brought to the story? The process of refining a game’s design is never easy, but this framework of author / actor / audience can give you some terminology to help find your footing as you begin the journey.