Role-playing by agreement



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This is something that has been running around my head for a while. I don't know if it is anything close to a final draft, but I'd appreciate some feedback on the contents - expansions, clarification, opposing viewpoints, rewording, etc.

I can't tell if it is moving in the right direction or if it is just Too Pomopous for Words?


An Approach to RPG
by Joseph Steven Coleman

Roleplaying is a dreamlife. In our games and in our dreams we can work out the frustrations and limitations of our waking world. All cultures have developed a dreamlife. The dreamlives of our culture can be found in our popular entertainments - books, film, television and music. For many of us there is a need to be more active in the creation of dreamtime adventures - being a passive consumer does not appeal to us. Some of us write the words, make the art, or play the music. Some of us read dozens of novels to enter new worlds.

And some of us play role playing games to experience a dreamlife of action and adventure.

There are several references which divide role players into four categories; power gamers, storytellers, role players and rules lawyers. Most of us are a combination of the four with a strong inclination toward one of the four aspects at one time or another.

Roleplaying by Agreement will not appeal to some players and some gamemasters. If it doesn't there is no real loss - there are dozens of games that will satisfy those players. This is a system that requires a heavy contribution from the gamemaster and all players.


Roleplaying already calls for agreement - which game to play, when to meet, who will be in the group, etc. Carrying the agreement into the game causes every member of the effort to be actively involved with the generation of the story. Within the knowledge and logic of the character (separated from the knowledge of the player) the drama will unfold and the confidence of the members of the group will increase.

Roleplaying by Agreement requires working within limitations. It requires the gamemaster to surrender the role of god of the game in favor of working with the players to expand the action beyond the thread of the original story line. It requires players to accomplish goals within the cooperate context of the gaming session and give up the quest to see how far they can bend the rules to make their character more powerful.

These limitations can be described as:

  1. Creation of a character with limitations.
  2. Surrendering the godhead of the gamemaster.
  3. Investing in the narrative.


The key of a good book or movie is the fact that something is at stake - something that will have a major effect on someone's life (often one or more of the player characters). To make that 'something at stake' meaningful, there needs to be a threat of consequence if the players fail. In some games this can include the death of the player character without the easy out of "resurrection" to soften the results. The gut reaction to the knowledge that entering combat can lead to death makes the depth of the game more intense and the memory of the game more vivid. Resurrection weakens a game's narrative and impact.

Players and the GM are able to bring their personal interests and reserarch into the creation of their characters and the construction of the scenario. The ability of characters to succeed must be balanced with the possibility of failure during the concept phase of character creation. This is usually a feature of the game design - a limited number of points, or a limited number of dice, to distribute into characteristics and skills.

Games don't offer skills like "Always Wins" because the aspect of surprise is removed from the game. In most role playing games there is a mechanism that allows a poorly trained or inexperienced to succed, and the seasoned professional will usually have a way to fail.

Some games allow a bonus for accepting extreme limitation -- points for a disadvantage, extra dice for owning a flaw. The conceptual limitation makes the triumph sweeter. A limited education can make getting information from a library far more difficult, and much more impressive when it succeeds. A limited skill with a bow makes the bullseye seem like the hand of god has guided your arrow.

Creating limited character does not mean creating an incompetent character. Like the imperfect humans who play the game, the character needs some sense of ability, some area of confidence and some satisfying area where the chances of success are high enough to provide some comfort level.

Above all, the character be (in the words of Jonathan Tweet in OVER THE EDGE) must be 'danger-worthy' - the character must be able to survive an average encounter with an average person. The creation of a teenager with no combat, occupational or educational skills, who dies a tragic and early death, satisfies none of the dreamtime needs other than creation of a martyr.

Good players challenge the gamemaster to deal with actions that do not keep the story confined to the restrictions of following a scenario as it appeared in a publication or as the gamemaster orginally envisioned during pre-game research. This means the players must draw a clear line between what they know as players, and what the character has been able to learn and *not* acting on information the character hasn't had a chance to learn. It also means being faithful to the conept and having the character behave within the limitations of his/her knowledge in the situation, despite how the player may perceive secrets behind the scenes.


In most contemporary games there is a division between the Gamemaster and the Players. The Gamemaster begins the game far in advance of the players and holds the most important pieces of the puzzle.

The most common problem gamemasters have shared, in personal conversations and e-mail, on the net, and in other public forums, is the burn-out of not getting to play. Many compose intriguing, inventive and creative campaigns for their player, but no one provides the same challenge to them from their lofty position over, and not in, the game.

Roleplaying by Agreement requires the gamemaster to compose a far more complex structure with looser connections between the elements. Instead of constructing a novel or a screenplay for your players to act out, you become an architect and build a city or a nation where your players discover the jewels you have hidden in the straw. You populate your terrain with men, women and creatures who have lives, desires, secrets and who move - who do not remain in place for their preordained "scene" with the player characters.

The challenge of a larger construction and a more living cast of non-player characters in place, you can introduce your players into the setting while it is going through its normal day, or on the brink of an extraordinary event.

And you join the game with your players. From time to time you will have to climb back up into your judgement seat - roll dice to answer questions that weren't covered in your original desing and moderate combat - but most of the time you will running along side your players through the masks of your NPCs.

As with other systems, a good gamemaster will keep the players involved by giving each of the player-characers a fair amount of time and attention, and the opporutnity to effect the outcome of the scene or the story. This means shifting focus from player to player within the individual sessions and also with in the overall campaign. It also means an improvisational technique that more closely resembles good jazz than a novel, an imporiviational comedy group than a constructed film.

Encourage your players to make suggestions and solve your problems in ways other than you planned in your original design. Listen to the PCs as they talk among themselves and let them ask questions, in and out of character. Make your notes in pencil to allow an idea you get from something one of the players does or says enter into the game. As the gamemaster it is your job to provide the best game you can, and if you ignore the knowledge, talents and interests of your players, you are basing your game on your own limitations rather than taking the best ideas presented to you. It is still YOUR decision and still YOUR game.


In most games the Gamemaster leads the players through a dungeon or a city or a forest or some other setting. The gamemaster makes an investment by setting the scene, setting clues, providing NPCs and interacting with the players to carry out the grand design.

Players go from encounter to encounter, hoping there is a larger structure behind their wanderings. Frequently players encounter a spot where the gamemaster thought they'd never go and the game bogs down or enters an encounter with no meaning other than occupying the players until they get back to the gamemaster's master plan.

Experienced players will know when they have 'done it wrong' and their personal investment in the game will falter. When the gamemaster is playing WITH the players, the flavor of the game changes. There is much the same sense of excitement knowing that it isn't a matter fulfilling the GMs plan, but getting through a larger setting where the game's drama is just one possibility. (Remember the quote "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them."?)

As players gain more confidence in the group and the GM, they are free to make suggestions or supply information. Ultimately the gamemaster must have the right to accept or reject the contribution, but the freedom to contribute and to use the new input to improve the game makes the gamemaster stronger. When the players see that their contributions have a positive effect on the flow of the story in the game, they are more invested in keeping the game, and the group, together. The security of the gamemaster in knowing only the GM can make a final decision, and the investment of the players will make it possible to try more dynamic plots, riskier elements and a faster moving narrative.

The most enjoyable gaming sessions I have experienced have been those where the players were a combination of storytellers and role players. In these games, the gamemaster worked together to achieve a satisfying flow of action and story -- cooperative storytelling. These have been like being major chracters in the history of the gamemaster's world. Events unfolded naturally as a result of our interactions player-to-player and player-to-gamemaster. The gamers I like to play with more than once are also involved with the expansion of the plot and working together to create a dreamtime history to be remembered as vividly as a good film or book.


In the hours after a gaming session, the memory files the details away and it ceases to be "remember when we all sat around the table and I rolled a 2 on my Dexterity?" It becomes "remember when I jumped onto the hood of that car." The scenes are composed by your imagination to suit your tastes and it becomes remembered in exactly the same way real events are remembered. After a while your game character will become as clearly remembered as a best friend from high school.

The catharsis of a good session is as real as the catharsis of solving a real-life problem or achieving a physical goal. It may not put money in your bank account, but it can make it easier to get a good night's sleep.

The success of the game played through Agreement is owned by the players and the gamester together. The gamemaster didn't "give" them a game, they all are responsible for its remembered structure. The memory of this type of game is more satisfying than the "look at me" in a game dominated by power gamers or the "you can't do that" game dominated by the rules lawyer. Roleplaying by Agreement will appeal to players who concentrate on the performance of their character and the evolution of the narrative over several sessions.

A SYSTEM FOR AGREEMENT You can play with whatever system your group is most comfortable using. I have written a dice pool system that provides a mid-point between full skill-based systems and narrative descritptoins. The system is (temporarily) called PLUS - PLayer's Utility System and it has been playtested in several genres, including super heroes, fantasy and far future science ficiton. All of the playtest games have been run on the principles in this paper and the result has been several of the most enjoyable games I have experienced.

I hope this concept can be used in your games and i would like to hear ideas to clarify or expand this concept.

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Last modified: 2001-Oct-29 17:22:00

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