Wednesday, December 7, 2016

What Makes a Good Player? with Alex Carlson

Today's What Makes a Good Player? feature is with Alex Carlson. They talk in detail about how they play for themselves and others, as well as noting how chronic illness and stress can impact gaming.


What do you try to do most often while playing games to enhance your experience and the experience of others?

My initial answer to this question was very long and roundabout because, for me, there are kind of three questions here, and I was trying to answer them at the same time. There is obviously what I do to enhance the experience for myself, but then there's "others." "Others" is usually, in the games I play, either the other players or the facilitator (GM, MC, ST, etc.). There are things I try to do to help out everyone at the table, there are considerations I primarily afford other players, and there are attitudes I usually only hold towards the GM, and then there's where each of those relationships has priority.

In the category of things I do to enhance everyone's experience, one jumps out right away. I started improvising a few years before I started playing role playing games regularly, and one of the biggest influences from that on my roleplaying (and life) is that the best way to take care of your scene partner, or other players, (or people in your life,) is to take care of yourself. In games, this means having a character that is interesting and interested, so that there are ways for others to engage with my character and ways for me to engage with and encourage other PCs.

Things I do for other players are also kind of things that I do for myself, because it's geared a lot towards modelling the behavior that makes me the most comfortable in a game. This is where a second improv lesson comes into play: sharing focus. I have a good sense of interesting plot hooks to get things started right away for my character, and that can end up with the narrative spotlight getting kind of stuck as the game finds it's footing. I am happy to give up "screen time" for other characters, and if the person running the game (when there is one) doesn't realize that I'm getting a lot of time, I make sure to find chances to pass the focus to other characters or story lines. If I know there are more hesitant players in the game, I try to present opportunities in my character's motivations and decisions for them to get involved without pressuring them to jump in, I also have some pretty strict lines on consent, and not just with in-game events. If there is a player struggling with the rules or character decisions, I'll offer my help, but don't force my way in to "helping" them if they don't want it. I've seen a lot of shy players get totally turned off to the idea of gaming when someone takes over telling them how to make the most effective character without any thought to what they want or what they've asked for.

With respect to the facilitator (if the game has one), I think I'm a lot more deferential than a lot of people I play with. I've run a lot of games, and I know how hard it can be, how much time and commitment and risk is involved, and I take that very seriously. If a game puts a lot of power in the facilitators hands, I don't try and fight them for it, though I'm happy to help out if they ask. If the game is set up as participationist (where the facilitator has a set plot in mind and the players don't have a lot of control and everyone knows and accepts this ahead of time), I'm okay with the occasional fudged roll or GM fiat. I follow similar rules of consent as well. There have been a few occasions where a friend has expressed an interest in running a system, only to follow it up by saying they'd be too embarrassed to run it for me because I'm very experienced with the game. My response to that is always pure encouragement and reassurance that, unless they ask for my help with rules, I'm not going to challenge them on how they rule or interpret the mechanics for their game. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a facilitator is let them run the game without trying to turn it in to what you think is a good game.

Do you use any specific play techniques (narrative tools, improv tools, etc.) in your play sessions?

I mentioned a few above, but improv absolutely influences how I engage at the table. It's hard for me to pull out specific tools that I use because so much of improv is learning techniques that influence how you behave in every situation, and doubly so in other creative media. "Yes, and," is one of the biggest and well known tools, and it is definitely relevant in games, but there's also "No, but," which is useful when players are steamrolling or suggesting things that I'm not comfortable with or that seem to be causing distress at the table. "No, but," is sort of like failure in Apocalypse World. You don't get what you want (most of the time), but there's more to the story, an alternative fictional element that keeps the action moving forward.

How often do you like to game, and what is most comfortable for you to maintain good energy in games?

I have to game at least once a week. I used to do at least two games a week in college, and I'm currently playing in two games. I'm a creative person with terrible anxiety and gaming is the creative outlet I use to keep feelings of artistic stagnation at bay. It's like a workout. I'm also super susceptible to stress, so tension at the table usually throws me off unless there's a resolution to the stressor or off-game time after two people butt heads. I also find that it's important to keep a good balance of meta conversation and in game play, which varies from group to group. Trying to keep everyone in character all the time just doesn't work for some groups, but too much out of character time can leave less socially assertive members of the group out in the cold.

What kind of games do you feel you are most comfortable with and enjoy the most?

I gain a LOT of vicarious enjoyment from games. If the facilitator is really into it, or the other players are on a roll, I'm happy. I really enjoy games where "failure" doesn't just stop the action, because you don't run the risk of ruining the mood at the table if you flop on a roll, which makes getting involved have much lower stakes.

To get specific, I'd say that my initial comfort level is highest with most of games that are Powered by the Apocalypse and Burning Wheel. I feel like they both address "failure" as something more interesting, and they both give players a high amount of narrative control with the level of world building and plot creating put into the hands of the players. I feel like I always have something to do in those games.

Can you share a special experience in a game where you felt like you did a good job playing your part in the overall story and game?

This is a tricky question for a number of reasons. I have a chronic illness that has made it difficult to remember things that have happened in the past few years, the group of people I play with shifted dramatically a few years ago, shifting my habits along with it, and I don't know that I ever reflect positively on things I do without major external influence. There was a moment that, in hindsight, feels very brief but is also the first thing that's come to mind that feels like a good answer for this question. It was a game of Unknown Armies in the year after I graduated college. I was playing a doctor who was pursuing the Avatar path for the Mother (an Avatar is like a socially accepted or recognized archetype that gives powers to those who fit the archetype, because in Unknown Armies, a lot of true occult power comes from human belief and expectation). 

My character's husband (another PC) had recently been killed because the player was no longer able to be in the game, and in the time since that had happened, she had formed a super codependent relationship with another PC who was an adept of a school of magic that the player had designed called pneumomancy. It involved inhaling toxic substances to gain charges, the resource needed to cast magic, and breathing clean air was the taboo, or forbidden action that would mean the PC would lose all of his charges. Despite her oath as a medical professional, she enabled this other PC constantly by explicitly being on hand to provide medical attention should a substance ever prove to be too toxic. 

One night, these two PCs were locked in a room together for the night, and the pneumomancer inhaled something and failed his check, so he passed out. My character was unable to revive him, so, instead of just letting him lose his charges, she use her Stay Up All Night skill to sit by him and hold a lit cigarette in front of his mouth until he woke up. I feel like this moment lined up to be really cool in several ways. It turned what would have otherwise just been downtime into a very intimate moment, it gave the other player a very significant choice to respond to, as his character, until that point, had been super aloof and stubbornly independent, and it refined how my character was channeling the Mother archetype. It also had mechanical benefits (he didn't lose his charges) and was strongly in sync with the tone of the game.


Thanks so much to Alex for answering my questions! I hope you all enjoyed reading!

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