"A thin crescent moon hangs sickly pale..."---A thought experiment

Consider the following thought experiment or scenario. The goal is to explore the play technique or design space around a player’s role when observing or interacting with a scene in progress.

A thin crescent moon hangs sickly pale over the ancient city of Umma Sabikh.

The SULTAN sleeps soundly in a room atop the Royal Palace. The hangings by the window hardly stir in the heavy, thick air of midnight.

His youngest CONCUBINE lies sleepless at the foot of his bed, looking out at the moon and wondering about her past: how did she come to be here, in this ancient and dusty place?

Outside, scaling the wall in total silence, the Sumerian ASSASSIN has finally reached the top of the minaret and is but a short leap from the Sultan’s bedroom.

You are playing this game. One person is the Narrator, establishing the above description.

The SULTAN, CONCUBINE, and ASSASSIN could all be played by your friends, or maybe just one or two of them for now.

You, however, are simply watching and listening. You don’t have a character in the scene.

However, the game allows you a variety of clever (and sometimes subtle) ways to influence the events in play and the outcome of this scene.

Which do you choose, and what does it look like?

Tell us, in as much detail as you can.

The goal of this thread is to explore the design space available for players who don’t have a character present in the scene. What new modes of interaction, game mechanics, or special arrangements of the game can we come up with?

What do you wish you could do, in a game situation like this? What do you wish your fellow players could do while you’re playing out a scene?

It can be narrative, social, or mechanical.

(This post was a thought experiment I posted before once on Story Games and then at the Gauntlet - link to archive and the original archive. Let’s now see what ideas this community has to share. If you find it confusing, click through and see how people responded there and then! But I’d prefer your immediate and unbiased reaction or ideas.)

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For me, cheering, commenting, and suggesting is enough. I don’t need to have something actionable to enjoy participating, as long as somewhere there has something actionable to comment on. Many sessions of Trollbabe have taught me there is no necessity for buy-in from “spectators”, as there are no spectators. If there’s proper understanding of in-play authorities, then people will feel free to comment because it’s obvious when they’re actively inserting something in the shared fiction, or when they’re giving input to someone else.

You’ll remember our recent game of The Pool where your friend severely influenced the scene she wasn’t in by making a suggestion of how the funeral of the choir-member should be held—by singing a song, but leaving their part unsung. And of course it was, no rule was needed to make it so, because I couldn’t un-hear those words, it just fit perfectly there.

All of that said.

A thing that happened to me a couple of times in The Pool, Trollbabe, Sorcerer, and in Apocalypse World is that players who aren’t in the scene sometimes act as facilitators. It’s easy for me to get swept up in playing the characters and forget there are rules to apply. A player whose character isn’t framed can identify the need for a conflict, or that a move has been triggered. In the case of Trollbabe, I interpret it as a hard procedure that if anyone sees a conflict, then it’s a conflict—no matter if they’re in the scene or not.

Another way of doing this is judgement. In Tales of the Round Table, the Muses, who don’t have characters in the scene, are watching enthralled because they’ll need to give bonus dice before the conflict, to judge how well the Actor addressed the conflict. Some form of judgement where bonus dice can be given according to various metrics could be interesting.

World Wide Wrestling has an interesting audience participation mechanic, although I haven’t played the game, so I can’t vouch for its efficacy.

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On top of the three ways already mentioned by Froggy, I can talk about two more coming from my play experience.

In Monsterhearts a lot of attention goes to characters’ feelings. It happened to me more than once that I interjected in a scene where my character wasn’t present in order to ask questions about the inner side of the ones under the spotlight. There were instances in which it was just out of curiosity, but also instances where I dropped a loaded question to push on some conflict I could glimpse in what was transpiring.

Instead Clink bakes into the resolution mechanics some contribution from other players. In a quick three- or four-session adventure I played in the game master role with two more guys, sometimes their characters were split due to previous events. This notwithstanding, everybody was always invested in the scene at hand, because at any time you may be required to introduce some complication, reaction, or past event.

To circle back to the original question by @Paul_T, personally I don’t really need any formalized tool or rule to keep me bound to other characters’ scenes. Either I’m invested with what we’re collectively creating through play, or I’m not for some deeper reason.

Paradoxically, what I consider the best rule on contributing to other people’s turns is in Microscope: it is explicitly forbidden to give (or ask for) advice. I don’t mean I would advocate for similar provisions to be applied in every game! My point is that, within the context of this ruleset, it gives a quite strong indication that the best way to contribute is not to try and push one’s own ideas upon the timeline under construction, but to pay close attention to other players’ inputs whatever they are, so that you can build on those later on.

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Hi Paul,

I have a bit difficulty to provide a concrete reply since the answer depends on how the authority is divided in play.

An example is the already mentioned Tales from the Round Table : there – even if you aren’t playing a character – you contribute as the Muse. Muses set up a place and time for the scene, deciding also how many dices to assign to the players for the conflict resolution.

Another example is Circle of Hands, where if you character dies can still interact and make suggestions to the other characters as a ghost, continuing to use magic and spells as well. By the rules, the character’s ghost appears in every scene and can contribuite o listen to the NPCs around.

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Aside from informal suggestions, which are well and good but the point of making something an explicit mechanic is so that even people who would normally refrain from it are encouraged to act, I really like approaches that deviate from the normal authority split where everyone just controls their character and the gm gets the rest of the world.

In this case, I’d enjoy being the one tasked with telling the Sultan what he’s dreaming about, or what past memory the Concubine glimpses in the moonlight, or what the Assassin is most afraid of encountering in the palace. This is kind of similar to @Eujohn 's Monsterhearts example, but I like the idea of framing my input as in-game intrusive thoughts or dreams; something that the other player can choose to resist or embrace, as decided by a mechanic.

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As others said, I don’t think there needs a specific rule or procedure for players whose character are not on stage at the moment.

Still, there were a couple of instances where I’ve used rules for this and I’d say they helped for that particular situation and they worked out well and recounting them might help others. Since I feel there was space (“need” being too strong a word) for them due to the peculiarity of the games in question, I’ll try to add as much detail as I can remember.

The first case was in my long campaign of Vampire: The Dark Ages. It was a 9-years long campaign we played weekly for most of the year and each session was 3 or 4 hours long. Also, one of the premises (which actually drew me toward that table) was that there wouldn’t be a “party”, each character moving on their own and crossing each other’s path. This meant that you could show up for game night and have very little or even no spotlight. After the first couple of months, the GM came up with a roster of NPCs who were coming up often (everything took place in the same city) and, when framing a scene, he would tell us that we could pick one of them and play them out, if they were in scene. He didn’t do it for all the scenes and it sometimes happened that somebody would decline picking up an NPC they didn’t like, so there was still a good amount of timeout[1]. It also allowed to add interesting quirks to NPCs, since some of them were passed around between multiple players (plus, obviously, the GM), with everyone playing them as they understood them.

For the second case, I’ve actually forgotten the game’s name. I remember it was somewhat Napoleonic-themed, had a good sense of humor and the manual had a brown cover. Anyway, it was played on two levels, the first being the PCs sitting around a table in a tavern (exactly as the players) and recounting their past adventure. There was some kind of opening scene, which was played out with everyone on stage and then there were mechanics to split and reunite the party. If your character wasn’t on stage in the adventure, you still had the option to call an on stage character out for “lying”. This triggered a conflict resolution which could escalate for, I think, three steps. Basically when you lost on one step you could back down (either apologizing or correcting your story incorporating the “truth” from the other character) or escalate further[2]. This mechanic worked pretty well because the game implied some kind of distrust between the characters and had a strong comical vein, which really encouraged to stand up and call people liars, especially when the story was becoming too linear. In a more serious setting I think it would have spoiled the atmosphere.

  1. I actually used a lot of that time to work on my thesis or to chat with the girl who became my wife, so it wasn’t exactly wasted anyway. ↩︎

  2. I only remember the fourth step, which the manual advocated strongly (even suggesting to skip the others) and described in great detail: pistol duel between the players. God would definitely show His favor to whoever was telling the truth. ↩︎

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Was it perhaps The extraordinary adventures of Baron Munchausen? I have only ever heard of it but what you say is interesting.

The thing that’s perplexing me about the post is how many people feel like you don’t “need” any procedures to handle off-scene contributions. From what I gather from Paul’s post this is not a matter of need, it’s a matter of “what sort of neat thing could you do with this possibility space?”.

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Based on what’s established so far, and my re-re-re-re-reading of 1001 Nights , here is what I would wish for:

The non-character, non-narrator players are God - specifically, we each reach for a virtue to reward or a vice to punish. The characters’ players can resist us with various elements of the identities of their characters, sometimes partially, sometimes completely, sometimes not at all, but the job of God’s players to cast moral judgment on the scene.

Examples: I’ve picked Sloth to punish.


Me: “What a sin is sloth! The Sultan sleeps even when awake, so asleep his sleep is as death itself, which is nearer than he knows. He cannot awaken even when the assassin makes a noise leaping to the window.”

Sultan (checking sheet): “Dammit. Yes, I’m Slothful. I slumber away!”

=== Alternately:

Me: “The concubine may yearn for freedom but the comforts of the castle, even the cast-off comforts, have dulled her senses. As the assassin makes about her deadly work, the concubine, rather than take the opportunity to escape, is docility itself. She cries for someone to save her.”

Concubine (checking sheet): “No way. I swallow that cry!” She doesn’t have either Slothful or Vigorous on her sheet, so she resists my judgment with whatever the dice system is.

==== Alterrnately:

Me: “The days of the adrenaline that comes with the amateur have long past. This is the third Sultan the assassin has killed this week. Bored and unfocused, she makes a critical error.”

Assassin (checking sheet): “You’re nuts. I’m Vigorous, not Slothful. My sins are elsewhere. In my dark work I remain focused and energetic.”


This is all to say that one element of high fantasy that is not often pursued is the moral judgments of the texts. (In the 1001 Nights, of course it’s a religious angle, so it’s simple enough to make the other players, collectively, the judgment of capital-g God.) So I would do something that let the players cast moral judgment on the characters, or require the characters to display one or another moral trait.

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It’s either that or something inspired by it (it wouldn’t have been the first time I’ve played something heavily hacked by whoever proposed it within that group).

I think this is mostly due to the fact that we’ve already had established procedures for that. In a vacuum it’s difficult to say “I’d do this instead of that” (or extremely easy to say it and then find yourself going in the opposite direction once you actually have to choose) and most systems already establish, either directly or indirectly, a way to handle people whose characters aren’t on stage at the moment so it’s not an itch we feel the need to scratch.

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I’d be happy to hear about some examples of these procedures. That’s definitely welcome here and on-topic!

I love this take, JD. For me, this thought experiment is very much an opportunity to explore various new ideas and techniques that might be missing from typical roleplaying practice. So, for instance, the idea of a fantasy game which leans strongly into the moral judgement aspects of the genre would be a very exciting thing for me - really really interesting territory to explore. I’d love to see a game like that.

Great examples, too!

Another thing we delved into a bit in the original thread (the second link in the original post above) was the idea of exploring or pushing on the internal conflicts of the characters involved. That’s something that’s very interesting to us as storytellers but often hard to do in the RPG medium. Your thoughts here delve into some of that same territory.

Now that the thread has gone a little distance, I invite you all to take a look at some the contributions in the earlier two threads - I love how each forum’s culture responds to this prompt differently (likely based on however the first person to respond contributes, setting the tone). There are some really cool suggestions in both threads.

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I’ll add a new one of my own:

I’m the Culture Deputy. I’m knowledgeable in the cultural details, dress, manners, art, and aesthetics of the historical milieu.

I am consulted on all matters of decor, dress (costumes), courtly manners, and other social mores. My job is to do research, answer questions, and to keep the game grounded in a consistent world of either historical accuracy or colourful fiction (as suits the game). We want it the vision to be consistent, flavourful, detailed, and memorable. That’s up to me.

I might describe the details of the Sultan’s bedchamber (in terms of decor), the dress and presentation of the Concubine, or the particulars of the behaviour or dress of any servants or courtiers, as is necessitated by the scene. What do they wear? What is a symbol of status, and what isn’t? What does the colour blue mean at court? (Perhaps there are political or religious connotations, for example, to wearing that colour.) Is it traditional for courtiers to carry swords, or are they strictly forbidden in the palace?

I’ll generally keep quiet unless prompted by the players, but occasionally when there is a lull or a particular detail seems really important, I might speak up and share my knowledge and/or ideas.

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In one of my small games, Tavern Stories, a Storyteller (a role that shifts between players after each “turn”) frames a scene.
The other players can interrupt the story, spending “bonds” (a consumable resource in the game), to do two different actions:

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I like that, Matteo. It’s attached to a currency and a key phrase which ties into the theme of the game. How does it affect how people play even when it’s not being exercised, it at all?

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People are listening veeery carefully :smiley: Because adding or changing something to the story is a chance to bend the situation BEFORE the contest ahead - and you want to face a contest that matches as much as possible with your characters.

The game is based on the Paragon System (the AGON system), so it’s a “competitive” game - all characters participate in the contest, and the one with the higher result is the best, collecting more rewards.

So, if you are a cleric, maybe you want to frame the scene in a temple, facing an undead creature. But, if I find the right moment to change your story, spending a bond, maybe it’s not a temple, you know… maybe it’s a graveyard. And I’m a necromancer…

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Nice, Matteo.

This is why I asked: I find that various opportunities for interaction really change the way people listen and their engagement.

In online games, if I’m not involved in long stretches of play, I sometimes take notes, just to have something to do and keep my attention on the game (and people appreciate it afterwards). I suppose that’s another thing which could be added to this thread here.

I once ran a storytelling game with a friend who really wanted to take part… but didn’t really participate. I found this odd at first, but afterwards she showed us that she’d been sketching everything that took place in the game, in real time! So we had a wonderful hand-drawn record of the game afterwards - a sort of memorable gift and valuable contribution of its own. It’s nice to review the images and remember the game (she even added significant quotes from the story to the drawings!).

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I agree - right now, 99% of my games are online, and the time is stretched, you know: everything seems a lot slower playing online.
And there is this issue: as a GM, I don’t want to force the pacing of a scene, but if the party is split up… I need to cut a scene, move the spotlight, and come back later to the first one to keep everyone involved. Having explicit mechanics to help players participate in the scene where their characters are not present is a feature I miss in some games.

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As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder, which of the three characters would I want to be? Only to find out that I’m none of the three and I’m offstage. What a twist… :wink:

So… So, if it were “Archipelago III,” I could do a bunch of things as an offstage player… but what I’d probably most like to do is say, “I’d like an interlude” and reveal a backstory, a particular twist or inject an intense and concise moment! Say something that fit just righ.

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I’ve recently played a game where there was a confessional cutaway. The game itself didn’t really work for me, but I did think about how I would make that cutaway functional. I’m not sure if it would be tonally appropriate for what @Paul_T described, but an external role calling for cuts to a character’s internal monologue could be an interesting thing to experiment with.

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Speaking of a mechanic like that, there are confessional scenes in another of my short games (this is a Lasers & Feelings hack).
In this case, they are centered on the character already in the spotlight, but I think it can be more interesting if the other players can call it.

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Absolutely! That’s a great example of the kind of thing I’m wondering about here.

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