11 December 2011

Alvaro C. Vargas, Space Grifter

When I’m not busy slacking off from writing blog posts I tend to spend my time as a moderator for a role playing community known as r/RPG. I spent the last couple of weeks making daily updates to something I called the “Play by Poll Experiment” on this community.

The experiment I had for r/RPG was to do something similar to a Quest Thread. A Quest is essentially a text adventure done over a messageboard or forum with one person leading the narrative and the rest arguing and/or voting for the main character to make actions. In my incarnation I created a survey form using Google Docs that contained an update to the story and a number of actions that the character could take. I would then post an update in around 24 hours with a new set of questions and a continuation of the plot based on the votes. I did this for a total of 14 updates with moderate popularity. The full story, sans unsuccessful options, can be read here.

What comes next is a bit of a post-mortem on the play by poll experiment, so you may want to read through the above link before continuing.

On Setting Selection


At the very beginning of the Play by Poll Experiment (hereafter referred to as PbPE) I put up a poll where people could vote on a setting tagline and a few character options. The taglines were a little tongue in cheek with options such as “in space, where nobody can hear you scream” or “in a land of rainbows and unicorns and man-eating giants” and I got a pretty good mix of votes among them. Space came out as the winner, but I couldn’t help but notice that there was a major drop off on interest once people realized their setting choice didn’t win. think the problem here was that I offered too many options and ended up splitting the vote. This ended up with a setting winning a majority when a minority of voters overall selected it. It would be too much work to setup a transferrable vote option to alleviate this, so I think the best option would be to provide fewer choices.

If I were to do this again I wouldn’t allow for more than 3 setting choices or I would go in the other direction with voters selecting multiple elements which get combined into something of my choice.

On Character Creation


The biggest problem with character creation was that I put it on the same poll as the setting selection. This meant that people had to select from options that wouldn’t necessarily fit with the setting they chose. There are two ways I can avoid this happening on a future poll. A) I could have the character creation on a second page with options determined by the setting selection or B) I could do a separate poll after the first had concluded for the character creation. I think B is the better option as it means I don’t have to create a bunch of options that will never be relevant.

I also think that the character creation I offered was too limited in scope. It consisted of selecting a race, sex, and tagline for the character. Unlike with the setting selection, I think voters were happy with the results of this section, but I think it could have been more engaging. The limited scope was partially due to trying to make the options somewhat generic and I think that was a mistake. I also found that as we progressed through the adventure there was call for a random factor. I’ll discuss this more in the next section but it boils down to me needing more things defined about the character in advance.

On Chance and Mechanics


Most of the games of this nature that I have seen before (Quests, for example) didn’t have any element of chance to them. They were mostly just pieces of guided fiction. I really wanted to capture the feeling of a group of people playing an old adventure book together, like Lone Wolf or Fighting Fantasy. This meant that there needed to an element of chance. Voters needed to be able to select from different options and hope that their character would be successful. I could have decided for myself, but I feel that takes something away from the experience.

I tried 3 different randomizers during the course of the game. The first was a simple coin flip. I asked the voters to vote on the result being heads or tails and if they were right they would get a positive reaction from their action. I didn’t really like this so for the next one I tasked voters for choosing a number from 1-3 and the % breakdown of the votes would be the chance of success. This actually worked rather well, although it resulted in rather poor odds. The third try was much the same as the last, but instead of using numbers I asked voters to pick who they thought would win in a fight and provided three options. I think this was more fun, but suffered from the same issues.

If I were to run another game like this I would have the voters select skills or attributes for their protagonist which I would then grant a percentage value. I would then use that percentage on all relevant challenges that came up for the odds of success. This means I don’t have to add a question that breaks immersion of the story and it becomes something related to the character instead of some outside force.

On the Update Schedule


I updated the adventure every 24 hours, give or take a few hours on certain days. I actually didn’t mind the pace, although I felt like I was letting people down when I was busy when the 24 hour mark came along (mostly on weekends). The problem with this pace is that it ended up losing people. Not everyone visits r/RPG on a daily basis, which is easy to forget when you are as involved with the community as I am. This meant I had a steady loss of voters as the adventure progressed because people would lose interest if they missed an update. I think a slower schedule might improve this.

I do worry that reducing the update frequency might cause the story to move too slowly. I think that updating every other day is probably the slowest you could go with something like this, at least at r/RPG which tends to be faster moving than an ordinary forum. The other thing I noticed is that votes tend to drop off at around 18 hours after the update. This is very much related to the nature of the community as the topic will drop from view rather quickly, meaning people won’t see it. It will be interesting to see how having if having it around an extra day will actually affect the number of votes it gets.

On the Narrative


I had a lot of fun writing a few paragraphs for this every day. I wouldn’t exactly call it writing I am proud of, but it wasn’t so poor that I would be ashamed of it either. I think it was very representative of role playing in that without the context of the back and forth between myself (the GM) and the voters (the player) it wouldn’t be particularly entertaining. The fun really comes from trying to adapt the story to what the voters/players have selected and the fun for the voters comes from seeing how their choices affect the narrative. It doesn’t need the writing to be of high quality, it just needs to be good enough to get the idea across.

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