Friday, 26 August 2016

The Trouble with Skype

I was reading an article by game writer +Grant Howitt about the joys of letting your group write your RPG character for you, and why it's awesome. It's a great article, and you should probably read it. In fact, if you've only got time to read that article or mine, I recommend his.

It also brought home to me something I've not really been able to put my finger on about the limitations of online roleplaying. Despite the title of this post, I've actually been using the built-in video/voice chat function of Roll20 for my most recent game, but the same things apply. It all comes up because my last few games have all run on some variation of Fate Core mechanics, and letting other people determine aspects of your background is a main part of Fate Core character creation, and one which has never gone really well, and I think for two reasons.

The first is simple and primal: We're not used to it. It's weird and scary. These are our characters, and I* don't want you** getting your fingermarks and your anime influences and your relentless 90s comedy referencing and your Ministry of Sound all over them. I can love the idea as much as anything and there's still a snarling, territorial beast at the core of my authorial soul that resents it. I suspect that this part has been strengthened by years of LARPing in an environment in which physical investment heightened that character possessiveness - and often a sort of narrative narcissism that insists that this is their story - to an almost insane degree.

Did I say narcissism? It's actually more like a form of partial solipsism, in which each player subconsciously assumes that the game is purely about their character, converting that to the conscious notion that each character has their own story, all of which link, rather than there being one story about everybody.

Give your 'princess' concept a bigger spin than 'plays the guitar'. Image from
Tale of Tales (2015, Archimede Pictures)
Now, having said all of that, the problem in Fate Core is almost the inverse - you are supposed to include another PC in your backstory, and people get just as twitchy about doing that as they do about letting other people include their character.

Either way around, what's the solution to that? Time, patience and the millions of years of evolution that allow us to confront our subconscious urges, basically. It's all fixable if we'e willing to go with it.

But the second problem... There's the rub. The second problem is the medium we're using. Any form of video conferencing is a poor substitute for personal interaction on a lot of levels, from sound and picture quality, to the exclusion of a whole lexicon of body language, to the fact that you don't get to share a meal and hug. Perhaps the most restrictive aspect, however, is that you can't crosstalk, and you can't have separate conversations; at least not organically. It inhibits the back and forth of conversation, and you can't make eye contact. There's no real way to signal your desire to speak other than shouting out, and if you can overcome your awkwardness enough to do that you can bet that the person you're interrupting will be pissed as hell, even if you are interrupting to make do something that will make them look cooler or prevent them from opening the door to certain death because they learned the two guard problem from Labyrinth. That sort of awkwardness is inimical to the sort of free exchange that makes such collaborative character creation both fun and involving.

There's probably a whole other article on video conferencing and player trust, but competition for the single communication channel has a deleterious effect on player and character interaction in the best of groups, and genuinely collaborative character generation needs a level of free and spontaneous interaction that let you feel comfortable shouting 'secretly a revolutionary socialist!' as the idea comes to you, instead of waiting for a free channel as the idea gradually becomes more and more awkward and eventually you decide it's a terrible idea and just sit by while someone suggests 'really into flower arranging' because it feels like a safe bet.

As a side problem, the limited time typically allotted to an online game - I'm lucky if we can get in three hours per session - tends to result in everyone coming to the 'table' with their ideas largely formed, simply because we lack the setting for people to talk, pass books back and forth, and write at the same time.

So, having named the problem, what's the solution?

Well, for starters, we need to be willing to try things. We need to be brave, and willing to give up our impulse to play the mechanically optimised character if that's not the point of the game***. On this subject, I refer you back to the original article.

On a more specific level, if we're going to be communicating largely online, then we need to work out better ways to do it; a new etiquette for social video conferencing. After all, it's not as if we don't have tools at our disposal. Explicitly use voice chat to encourage simultaneous responses. Employ a virtual ticket system. Avoid rigid turn taking, as that could be awkward if someone doesn't have an idea, or if someone else already said there. If two people present 'secretly a ninja' in simultaneous text chat, that's a vote of confidence in the concept. If one person suggests it and the other goes after them and didn't have any other ideas, then the second person feels uninspired, even though the first may also have nothing else in mind.

In conclusion, we're not as tech-savvy as we'd like to think we are. This is still terra incognita for us, and we're going to need to start blazing some serious trails if conference roleplaying is ever going to be the alternative that so many responsible, hard-working adults need.

* By which I could equally mean you.
** By which I could equally mean me.
*** I'm infamously bad at optimising, but I'm not saying that y'all need to get with my programme. It's not that I don't try to optimise, I'm just bad at it, and incompetence is no substitute for intent.