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The humble tabletop laboratory

What’s a GM to do when players have these real life commitments and the GM misses the raid call for the MMO at the same time? Ponder the ponderings, for his own benefit. Thankfully, this blog has a readership of one, and after some deliberation about that situation I came to realize this is a net boon. I’m not quite, as they say, unleashed, but I do find that I’m able to force myself to try and articulate ideas in the public sphere outside the jargon of my shorthand. What the fuck? Well, means I think about things a bit differently when I write them out in wordpress.

The pondering of the moment goes to my prior thought on the next experiment. The idea here is that there is an automated way to recreate a small aspect of the tabletop experience, to automate the player in some capacity that I could still get a “fix” in over the weekend. As someone who likes to torture logic like a bendy straw in a hurricane, I found myself asking what it was that really happened in the tabletop. When the likes of nerdkind gather around the handcrafted, wooden table to throw down the dice, what’s really going on there?

After a few hours of thinking about this, I arrived at the decision that the GM sits at the table to command reactions. Not in all games and I don’t really care about other GMs. It just isn’t relevant to the topic. To me, when players gather at the table, the moment is about reactions. Every second of the game is held up in it. This is why electronic dice rollers are a serious impediment. How many times have I seen an excited player push the chair back, the entire play group lean forward, as dice are shaken with a tiger-like ferocity before tossed onto the table. “Holy shit, we did it!”

The GM’s core job is to create those moments. To build them requires a bit of masterwork, it’s an artform all it’s own. Where traditional storytelling fails is that, aside from some dude standing there and gesturing all about like he lost his way from the bar, in a properly run tabletop the player is an invested part of the story–in fact, the player IS the story. Since our prismatic identity is formed through memories and memories are stitched stories of perceived events, the humble tabletop is a powerful psychological force.

It’s probably why competing social structures hate it so much–one could argue that it’s overly effective.

Returning to the topic of automating players the nearest I could come up with in terms of a sketch is something that somewhat looks like the sims. That’s a game of reactions too. Do I see myself setting up a Cleverbot and a sims-like experience at the table and attempting a session? No. Although I did think about it.

It’s the scale of that reaction. I’m thinking that immersion is just that, too. What’s immersion? Aside from a total mindfreak with your little campaign world, it’s about pushing yourself into a class of reactions. This is why video game players often excel at real life activities after doing them in a video game for months on end. It’s immersive. it’s a training sim. It’s a reaction!

I’m torturing grammar, words and probably the only reader out there for this blog-oh wait, that’s me!

Anyhow, the intersection of story and the reaction of a person is interesting. The chain-reaction is something I’m thinking is key to the success of a well-run tabletop game. It’s like fostering a spirited communication in the corporate boardroom. Sure, poking the hornet’s nest is dangerous, but by God sometimes good things happen. The world can take a break from doom and gloom long enough to cast a ray of light, right?

So there a GM is, engaged in a communication with his players. The players are reacting verbally, but physically too and building off one another. Some reactions may piss off some players and at other times there is a group hug. The GM takes down notes, builds up ever more elaborate trickery, scenes, and the like and pushes the players in just the right way for the players to experience the story first-hand, in real time. What story? Theirs. Why is that key? Because games are about learning. Experiencing the story of the player’s character creates an endless opportunity to learn about this character that they imagined – likes, dislikes and capabilities.

Therefore, an automation attempt would be fruitless unless someone figures out a way to make software care about the story that’s being told. Software wouldn’t care-it wouldn’t switch itself to CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE THAT GNOLL IS ABOUT TO EAT OFF THE ARM. You could code it to have an emotional state and you could randomize reactions, but to create code that can build upon itself to grow with the story? Not happening anytime soon.

This doesn’t mean some aspect of a tabletop couldn’t make it over to software, hell there’s this whole industry built up around aspects. It’s just the important part, the true part of what makes tabletop work, isn’t possible to port with current technology. Tomorrow? Maybe.

Categories: Musings
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