[Design Thought Experiment] "A thin crescent moon hangs sickly pale..."

Consider the following thought experiment or scenario. The goal is to explore the 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 or a scene?

It can be narrative, social, or mechanical.

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I like the way something like FitD engages other players through devils bargains. It means everyone participates in the consequences of the story.

But in this scenario, i would first reach for the environment and try to shape the action in subtle ways: wind blows something over and the concubine goes to the window.

From a different angle, take an improv approach and have players be able to tap in for another player and take control of the action for a moment until they get tapped by someone else.

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I’m not in the scene which means I’m the SERVANT, which is a non-diegetic role that impacts the fiction. I bring the players food and drink, in small but carefully calibrated quantities, and the things I bring them to eat and drink must inform their choices and words. From my culinary palette I bring the ASSASSIN something hard and crumbly and salty, but with a shot of hot, sweet tea. I bring the CONCUBINE something light and delicious that tastes, perhaps, like freedom. I bring the SULTAN something bland, but have something bitter and nasty waiting close at hand.

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I’m not in the scene which means I’m the SWITCHER. I move the role archetypes around in whatever way interests me in the moment. The three archetypes - Assassin, Concubine and Sultan, represent the social and power dynamics in the situation. The ASSASSIN player is always playing Namkuzu the Killer, whose goal is always to murder the Sultan, but I can give him the Sultan archetype if I want, altering the dynamics of the scene. I can switch all three if I want. Suddenly Young Ajda is the Assassin (still a concubine, but now imbued with the powers of life and death), and Namkuzu the Killer is the Sultan (Still a murderer, but now dominant in terms of secular power), and the Sultan is the Concubine (stripped of secular power, a prisoner of some sort, and persuasive)- what does that mean? What happens?

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I am the CURIOUS CHILD. My job is to ask other players in the scene every question that occurs to me (“Why are you trying to kill the Sultan?” “Do you love the Sultan? Enough to warn him?” “Why would you believe the Concubine when it could be a trap?”) and then, no matter what the answer, to gasp, cover my mouth, and nod excitedly.

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I am an EFREETI planting seeds of hate with lies and exaggeration, narrating all the past evil-deeds of the Sultan and everyone else in the scene.

OR

I am a DJINN whispering truths about love and mercy; justice and honor; and forgiveness.

OR

I am an ARCH-ANGEL narrating the events as seen from Heaven.

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While I do not have an explicit role, I am afforded the privilege of DETAIL, which allows me to answer the questions that players have about elements within the scene. Anything short of action is mine to answer. “How many steps is it from the window to the bed?” “What are the guards about the palace armed with?” “Where is the Sultan’s first dream set?” “What nation did the concubine come from?”

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A thin crescent moon + Cobralingus, I’m just saying. Map audience roles to the different gates. Jason’s post above planted that seed in my brain, @Jmstar. Players make their moves like a typical narrative game, but the results are the INPUT signal for Cobralingus, and this continues each time the plot advances.

I am the WIND. I bring heat from the desert or cool breezes from the sea; I bring the smells of the market and the palace; I waft curtains, slam doors, and stir up sand and dust to hide and confuse.

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Oh, yes! So yes.

I love how this is not unlike some of the other “side commentator” ideas, but phrased with a very particular and flavourful focus; it has real “bite”.

I’m really enjoying the direction this thread has taken. I wasn’t sure how people would respond, but the character-based sense of input and play you are all riffing on is really delightful.

I tried this prompt over at Story Games, too (which is, unfortunately, shutting down soon), and got some rather different discussion and results (which you can read for yourselves here, if you like).

Here’s one of my favourite contributions from that thread:

The players can only communicate their actions indirectly to each other, through me, as though I were an interpreter; I emphasize different aspects of what they said, or rephrase certain remarks.

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I am the POLITICAL MIRROR. As the events of the scene progress, I make commentary on larger events outside the scope of the scene, past, present, and future.

How did this moment come about? What inexorable forces of history brought us to this point? What larger forces have placed these players here, today, acting out these roles?

What is happening out in the larger world, which gives this new context? Are the Sultan’s marauders, even now, burning the villages that were once the Concubine’s home?

What will the people remember about this incident in the future? Is this a significant day, a turning point? What larger, future events depend on this moment?

I am the PERSONAL MIRROR. I describe the inner turmoil, hidden doubts, and feelings, instincts, or urges of the characters involved. I unveil their hidden, inner worlds and give us a glimpse into what’s underneath the surface.

I whisper into the players’ ears, I make marks on their character sheets, and I speak to them of their unbidden desires.

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  • I determine who is the CENTRAL CHARACTER or PROTAGONIST, at any point in the scene. (The dynamics of the scene are very different if the ASSASSIN is the “viewpoint character”, compared to the SULTAN or the CONCUBINE, and may also have mechanical implications - e.g. if the rule system only makes players controlling PCs roll.)

  • I determine which characters will or may recur in future scenes/further in the story. (“That wasn’t the last time we’d see the Sultan…”)

  • I determine the dice, difficulty, or stakes of mechanical procedures during the duration of the scene. (“You want to climb up the rope? That will be a DC of 20.” / “On a miss, wolves.”)

  • I flag certain moves, elements, or outcomes with mechanical rewards. (“Assassin, I’m highlighting your Hot.” / “The contents of the treasure chest behind the Sultan’s bed are worth 250 XPs.” / “Sultan, if the Assassin gets away, your kingdom’s Rumours of Instability table will be advanced by one row.”)

  • I ask each of the players for background information, and frame flashbacks when I’m really curious about their answers.

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I often think about this thought experiment since I first read it on S-G. I think it would make an interesting Archipelago playset. All of these different audience roles could be elements owned by players whose characters are not in the scene (They are effectively the audience unless they take up a NPC).

It would also be interesting to tell this story Memento-style.

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  • I step into the scene, taking on the role of a character described to be present. I begin to embody (or roleplay) that character in some respect. Perhaps I narrate their dialogue and their actions; perhaps I illustrate their inner thoughts and subtext; or, perhaps I take on their physical comportment, portraying their body language in response to the narration of the other players.

  • I assign advantage or disadvantage to certain characters, based on their position in the scene and how I want it to resolve. Perhaps I say that the SULTAN’s position is strong on conspicuous, handing out a large die for the character. It will now be added to any rolls made on the SULTAN’s behalf, or indicates how many experience points others get for doing as he says.

  • I help determine the background and history of any given character, asking questions, labeling lacunae (or mysteries, points of important but unknown information), or filling out basic statements about the nature of the character (“the CONCUBINE’s basic outlook is one of paranoia, and her desire is for the survival of her family…”).