Words about worlds

Building for Change: Playing groups

by | Dec 6, 2023 | Games, Worldbuilding | 0 comments

On a sunny day, a group of gardeners work in Bostanie urban garden. People of all ages are raking and weeding in this green space.

Collective work session at Bostanie urban garden, CC BY 4.0 by SA, The Green Ark – Bostanie

“So, what you’re saying is, this group brings heavy baggage,” said our GM last night. Our GM was grinning that special grin. All of us knew why. In a group that consists of friends, family, and co-workers, with cross-knit relationships that run back more than twenty years, you can bet we have baggage — baggage, in-jokes, tales of dark times and bright times, and memories of real-world struggles and in-game fiascoes.

People group. Grouping helps us get stuff done. Grouping can lead to terrible strife and to glorious achievements. We want more of that in our stories.

Where to start? We could start by glancing around the setting. If our setting contains a spaceship, a city, a round of cheese or a piece of cloth, we can ask ourselves, “How was this made? How many people did it take?” Then we can ask, “How did those people work together, if they did?”

If objects don’t interest us today, we can try culture. If our setting contains a holiday, who is celebrating? How did they become ‘the group that celebrates this holiday’? If our setting contains a language, who speaks it? How did they become ‘the group that speaks this language’? How many dialects, accents, variations, and fights are there over words in our setting? If the setting is our personal house, I can tell you that the answer is probably in the hundreds, but that’s another story.

We grow up in a lot of intersecting groups: the group that lives in this place; the group that speaks these languages; the group that knows these stories; and so many more. As we age, we jump in and out of groups: the group that has this teacher; the group that plays soccer on this field; the group that listens to this music. There’s the group that does this job; the group that researches this idea; the group that works to make this change.

Within a group, how is the group structured? How are rules of behavior enforced within the group? How much agency does an individual member have? Who controls the narrative? Who controls the outside image? Here’s my favorite question right now: how does the group empower its members to make changes within the group?

Let’s say we want the characters in our story to belong to a political party. Does that political party do anything to help the characters find the time and resources to act on behalf of the party? PCs tend to be special – we want them to change the world, after all – so focus on how the political party treats Average NPC. Does the political party reach out and ask all NPCs, or even a few random NPCs, to join conversations with their representatives? Do representatives respond personally when Average NPCs voice their concerns? Do they have ways for the Average NPC to be heard by the entire group? Do they push through legal measures that give the Average NPC more income, more agency, more liberty? Or, do they just design advertising to manipulate the emotions of Average NPC while doing their best to make sure that Average NPC has no time, no money, and no emotional energy to engage with the party?

Of course, the last option is a more interesting place to start a politically-oriented story because it gives much more for the PCs, as agents of change, to do. But it is a painful way for Average NPC to live. Our setting’s tone needs to reflect that.

We can ask the same questions of corporations, schools, craft guilds, labor unions, and religious orders. How much influence does Average NPC have in the group, and how does the group support or deny Average NPC in gaining more influence?

Let’s say our setting includes a military group. How are Average NPCs motivated to join the military? They might be overtly motivated, for example, by being denied the right to participate in the adult society unless they serve. They might be more subtly motivated, for example, by inspiring tales of urgency and agency, or by peer pressure, or by systematically supported poverty and discrimination, with free job training (including all forms of advanced education) and future freedom of choice offered as incentives by the military. How is Average NPC kept in the group? Is leaving as easy as “Your two years are up, thank you for your service, bye now,” or dropping a signed paper on a desk, or is it as complex as a decade-long fight to reclaim one’s agency?

If Average NPC has very little influence in a group, and if the group takes actions to ensure that Aveage NPC will continue to have very little influence in the group, then what mechanisms remain for our PCs to change anything? Our PCs may come up with a dozen ideas we haven’t imagined, but experience shows that we have to start with one path to affect change in the bleak setting we are creating. We have to lay the start of a trail. We have to put some effort into highlighting the hope within the setting, so that our PCs are motivated to try. This, of course, is Adventure Writing 101: start with a simple task that sets your PCs up for success. It’s most important when your PCs are part of (or are opposing) a group whose framework is designed to stop effective change.

Grouping helps us get stuff done. If we want our PCs to change the world, what mechanisms should we, as designers, bake into the world to help PCs to create groups and to motivate collaborative action? Better yet, what existing mechanisms can we steal with both hands, give credit, and re-purpose?

A now-standard* mechanic in RPGs is the “helping action”: Player A can use their resources to support Player B’s action, giving B a greater chance of success. Can we expand a helping mechanic to a group scale?

One version of this mechanic involves awarding Players some type of “helping token” that Players can spend to give another Player’s character a boost. One quick way to expand this mechanic to a group scale is to create a “group action pool”. Helping tokens that are contributed to the group action pool can be spent later to motivate a certain number of NPCs to take actions that help the PC’s goals.

That’s a bit opaque. Let’s get concrete. First, let’s invent the rules. In our spontaneously created system, each Player gets 1 helping token each session. Each Player can use their helping token in-game to provide a boost to another PC’s action, or the Player can contribute their helping token to the “group action pool”. One token in the group action pool can be “spent” to motivate 5 NPCs to help the party. Players decide when tokens in the group action pool are spent, they must agree, and they can spend as many as they want at once, up to the current total in the pool.

Let’s go.

In Session 1, Journey and Dale spend their helping tokens to boost other PCs’ actions. Matt and Lea donate their helping tokens to the group action pool. In Session 2, Journey and Lea want to sneak into the upper levels of a skyscraper. The elevator is locked out and the stairs are usually guarded. The group agrees to spend the 2 helper tokens in the group action pool to create a flash mob of NPCs in the lobby, all wearing cat masks and dancing to the latest hip-hop craze. This distracts the guards at the stairs (and everywhere else). Journey and Lea, carrying clipboards, slip up the staircase. Bonus: Matt’s film of the flash mob goes viral, which is an in-game way of saying that Matt donates their Session 2 helper token to the group action pool. Now, Matt can call on 5 people who saw the video to participate in another flash mob later on.

Of course, that’s a fast example with a very quick return. For a long campaign where PCs want to break down entrenched hierarchies and really change the world, the Players would want to use their group action pool for longer-term efforts. With Player consent, some of those group actions might even happen off-stage, with the GM narrating the actions and the effects of those actions at the start of a session.

We can adjust this mechanism to motivate some relationship building as well. To add a helping token to the group action pool, the Player must describe a positive interaction between the PC and one or more NPCs. It could be any type of interaction, from thwarting a robbery to volunteering to tutor middle-school math. The PC could be the person who thwarted the robbery or the storekeeper, the tutor or the tutored student. The point is the interaction. The more the PCs embed themselves in their community, giving and receiving, the more tokens they can put in their group action pool, and the more their community will be motivated to help them when it counts.

Grouping helps to get stuff done, so let’s create systems and settings that help the PCs create the groups they need to change their worlds.

*now-standard: weasel words that mean, “I have no idea who to credit for starting this.”


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