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 Communicating Agendas in Group RP
 Posted: Oct 26 2016, 11:53 AM


21 Oct 16


Programming, community management, and writing


What's Love Got To Do With It? Part 1... or, Communicating Agendas in Group RP

There is this meme going around certain RP communities. "A board only fails because the admin didn't love it enough." I disagree, there are plenty of other common problems that will knee-cap a play-by-post RPG even when the admin has all the commitment in the world. I'd like to share with you a strategy for making your RP work better by avoiding those traps and clearly communicating how to play.

On Commitment
Yes, I do believe that commitment is an enormous part of making any RPG work. However, it is not the only condition that matters. Indeed, I'd say that relying on commitment alone to run your community is setting yourself up for failure.

Commitment alone will not get players' attention. It will not encourage good play habits in them. It will not keep players around after the buzz of finding a new game wears off.

It means that when you are inevitably disappointed by the attention your board doesn't get, by players leaving by the dozens without a word, and by the emotional toll of sometimes being The Bad Guy, then you may have the fortitude to not throw up your hands and be done with the whole mess.

It just means that you probably won't shut down after a week.

Is that an exaggeration? Sure. But commitment alone will not solve all your problems. If RP administration were a video game, it would be the Nightmare difficulty mode that exacerbates every single one of the problems you might have with any given player.

Here's Problem Number One
In play-by-post there's a distinct lack of support beyond the front gate. Once a player's character is in, they're pretty much on their own. Very few games have guides for best play practices, how to be a good member, and so on. This makes it harder on admins, who have to manually deal with the mess of a community without support, and on players who are relying on their experience in previous communities to fill in the blanks.

Players learn a lot of habits by intuition and the way people do things in their first communities. Different communities have different norms. Outside norms may cause friction or outright dysfunction in your community, unless they are helped to adapt to your community's norms.

It may be totally fine to post a whole page long post in one community, but in another it's a faux pas. In one community players may have to deal with death rules and must build characters and situations to make sure that they don't die -- in another community, death may be a rare, plotted out occurrence but the player will still do things primarily to make sure they don't die. Their habit is to protect against "gotchas."

How do you bridge that gap and make a player from the former community functional in the latter?

The current pervasive tactic -- and I do mean that this tactic is pretty much everywhere -- is to lock out anybody who does not already conform. Make your board as obtuse as possible, including the visual design, rules, and on-boarding[1], so that only the people who are already initiated can get in to begin with.

Sometimes, a community will drop the roadblocks. Instead, they go for a "sink or swim" approach. It's pretty much just as bad though, because the problem of adapting a player to a foreign play culture is still there. You're giving them a chance now, but without clear direction their chances are slim.

There Has Got To Be a Better Way!
And there is. It's just some extra foundation work in the beginning to make sure that you and everybody else is on the same page.

One option I use is to define values, principles, and play techniques for all the players. It makes the whole thing really clear and organized.

These may also be called community agendas. These are things that all the players should set out to do when they play. If they do not, or they actively defy these goals, then something has gone wrong.

Write down three or four things that you are making your RP community for. Be honest about it. If a big part of your board is the aesthetic, mark that down as a value. There are no wrong answers. I've listed some common values below.
  • We play to make each thread engaging to read & write.
  • We play to weave our characters' stories together into a sprawling epic.
  • We play to imagine what our story would look like as a TV show, including which actors might play our characters and a focus on low level inter-character drama.
  • We play to share pretty things -- words, graphics, played-bys -- and use them to enrich our scenes.

Values make sure that everybody understands why the community exists. With a clear set of values, players are more focused and have a clear destination. However, you can't get to any destination without a map. That's where principles come in.

If your community values are your destination then your principles are your map and landmarks. They're the guides to accomplishing the tasks ahead of you. Values are the why, principles are the how.

Take the values, "We play to make each thread engaging to read & write," and "We play to weave our characters' stories together into a sprawling epic." They might have principles that look like these below.


  • Prompt the other players in each post. Give them something obvious to directly respond to.
  • Make personal things big. This is a game that's all about personal stories motivating epic conflicts. Don't just settle on "cool". Make every conflict about a character's struggles.
  • Begin each thread with a question. This question is what the scene is about. "What exactly is our characters' relationship like?" "What does it take to get Pearl & Amethyst to work together?" Work toward developing this question in the thread, and end the thread when it's answered.
  • Blanket the world in darkness and monstrosity. This is a world where nobody is clean and everybody has a dark secret. Play that up in your descriptions. Make it moody.
  • Be a fan of the other players' characters. Don't be a passive observer. Cheer them on, lament their losses, and be good to them.
  • Play easy, play fair. You're not here to dominate or make the narrative bend to your whims. If somebody says no, that's it. Find another way and cooperate with others to do cool stuff.
  • Take chances, make mistakes, make it messy. Highlight your character's weaknesses as much as their strengths. Show them struggling, so that when they do finally get things right then it feels that much sweeter -- and so that when they fail, it stings that much more.

Principles are a good way to let others in on the particulars of your broader goals. They can also get across smaller goals and best practices to play toward. That way, everybody is speaking the language and playing toward the same things in similar ways. However, sometimes there are gaps in ability and ingrained bad habits that still get in the way. That's when it's useful to write out specific techniques.

If, in our already stretched analogy, values are destinations and principles are maps and landmarks, then techniques are survival skills. They're the specific ways that players work toward a principle. These are often left up to a player's individual skill. That's okay in some cases, but in many it can be a dysfunctional mess.

Take fight scenes, for example. Fight scenes suck in RP. Mostly because everybody wants to come out on top but doesn't want to come off as if they're god moding. Under these circumstances, fights become unfun games of chicken where the players devise more and more overwhelming tactics and the first person to sacrifice their integrity and no-sell an attack loses face but... kind of wins the fight? T1 rules are then implemented to crack down on god moding by just double banning it. In doing so they exacerbate the original problem of the meta-game chicken.

This is the way people play! But what about any RP community where you want fights that have actual dramatic turns, interesting choices, and stakes beyond the players' egos? Well, you're going to have to write a guide for how to accomplish that. Here's a very compressed version of a guide I wrote for this same problem -- though it is untested, it's just an example.

When you deal a powerful blow or put an opponent in a tight spot (via tactics, powers, martial arts, etc.), give them a choice. Write it out at the end of your post. They can either evade the blow/get out of the tight spot and not suffer its effects, or they may gain an advantage that you define.

This is so that all fight posts are prompts to do something awesome and not a slog of “Nuh-uh!” “Yuh-huh!” arguments or games of “god mode chicken” that RP fights often devolve into.

Being specific about how to play like this can be a big advantage for an admin managing an RP. It can help everybody make greater contributions when you're trying to do something different in a genre of RP that's already quite defined by certain other techniques. It also makes it much simpler for newbies to do well.

And Finally...
Don't give up. Commitment is essential, but it won't get you far alone. You need to support it with methods that help others to become just as committed. Don't just power through the slog of running a board with bloody minded determination. Instead, set up your board for success. Work smarter, not harder.

1: On-boarding is the subject of part two in this series.

Originally posted on Below the Sun by bubblyBumblebee.
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