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Ludo Ergo Sum
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(Or, What is collaborative roleplay?)

When an author writes a novel or a playwright a play, there is one planner, one creative source, one authority on the setting and theme, one instigator of action, one arbiter of character actions, and one source of character actions. Roleplay is so often compared to written fiction and to theatre that it's almost a cliché. The model of roleplaying that developed out of this literary background maintained the one author, and invested a smidge of control in the form of character actions to the "readers," the game master's players.

This isn't the only way to model roleplaying. What would happen if one were to distribute more authorship of the game to more of the participants? What would happen if, rather than modelling the players after readers, one were to model the players after the multiple authors of a collaborative work? Rarely does one see a book written by more than two authors, but it can work in a roleplaying group as any child playing "pretend" can tell you.

A while ago I tripped over an article at a now-defunct site about something called "collaborative roleplay." It laid out the current model of most roleplaying games, then began to show how this model could be altered.

In a traditional roleplaying group, the GM wears many hats. One is that of arbiter, to make sure the interactions of the players with each other and the world are fair and consistent. Another hat is that of storyteller, laying out the plots and subplots of the game so that the players have a story to take part in. An other hat is that of narrator, keeping the story moving along and setting pace such that the story is engaging. Yet another hat is that of world-builder, choosing a theme and creating a setting in which the characters live and have their adventures. There are myriad lesser hats; those of time-keeper, group organiser, venue host, combat coreographer, bit-player, information gatekeeper, and so on.

All of these hats are traditionally assumed by one participant, while all the other participants are given one hat to share, that of character action for a specific character. The idea behind collaborative roleplaying is to spread the GM's hats around among the participants so that everyone can take part in the full range of participation offered by the broadly-defined activity called roleplaying.

Aside from the first model of one GM to many players, there are three other models (and variations thereon) that arise from different distributions of these hats.

The easiest step away from the GM/player model is to take some of the tasks traditionally managed by the GM and give them to specific other players, or to all the players. For instance, role of rules arbiter may be given over to all the players, freeing the GM of getting bogged down in details of combat or whether a sword-crafting attempt succeeds. In this distribution, all the players take care of their own success rolls with consultation with the GM as necessary, or intervention by the GM when secret information affects the outcome. This divests the GM of only one hat, however, and requires a high level of trust between the GM and the players, and between each player.

The third model is to completely redistribute the hats of the GM to all participants of the game, such that there is no GM. One player may be the authority on the setting, while two others share the task of plotting the story and narrating. An other player might be tasked with arbitrating combat, while all players are responsible for their own success rolls outside of combat. Narration becomes the property of all players, as they narrate the part of the game that is their individual expertise: the storytellers provide plot in consultation with the expert on setting; the expert on setting lays out the scenes and can answer questions about the world and provide common knowledge that characters would have; other players provide the narrative when their character is on stage.

The third model is the logical extension of the second, when all the hats become evenly distributed among the players. Each player is responsible for their involvment in the game, and all players share in bringing together a setting, plot, major and minor characters, political factions, races and cultures, heros and villains. Unsurprisingly, each player will take more or less interest in each part of the game and will specialise as their talents dictate, but this arises organically out of the model just as the game itself arises organically out of the efforst of the players. Such specialisation might take the form of focusing on a particular race, such as elves, in a fantasy setting. That player eventually becomes an expert on elves, and can be called upon by other players as an authority when the plot or setting calls for a detail about elves to be filled in.

The game takes on a different character in this model because there is no secret information held by a single authority -- all are aware of everything going on within the world, and can ask their fellow players for details about any necessary aspect of the world. An effect of this is that players need not associate with a single avatar; rather than a player taking on the role of the Crown Prince of the Great Isles, that player simply becomes an expert on that character, an authority who can be consulted for scenes or plot involving that character, and can be called on to portray the character in a scene.

Collaborative roleplay is more like a book than traditional roleplay. All players become authors, proactively participating in the game rather than participating reactively to the actions of one player. There are styles of play that can't be effectively enjoyed collaboratively, however, such as adventure/discovery focused, avatar-based games. Collaborative roleplay isn't a replacement for traditional roleplaying games, but a supplement to them that can increase a roleplayer's repertoire.

For further reading, I'm including several links to material on collaborative roleplaying.

To collect information on collaborative roleplay in one place, Ian Millington has created the site CollaborativeRoleplay.org. A number of articles and rules systems, both commercial and amateur, are linked from the site.


Ian single-handedly sparked the interest in collaborative roleplaying online with his original article/rules/dissertation called Ergo 1. Sadly, the original site that introduced me to it is no longer up, but the substance, if not original form, is reproduced at:


A second attempt at a cohesive set of rules was aborted in Ergo 2. A different, more codified approach has been made in Sum 1:


The article, Starting To Collaborate, goes into detail about the distribution of tasks within a group, and how to remodel one's roleplaying group to incorporate the aspects of collaborative roleplay that interest you. This is the article that my article is loosely (i.e. from memory of the first time I read it ages ago) based on. If I've rambled and been incoherent, this article will probably make more sense to you. ;-) The diagrams alone are useful.


More articles on collaborative roleplay are available here:


An interview with Ian about Ergo and collaborative roleplay in general, over at the 'net zine Places to Go, People to Be:


(This is an excellent zine, by the way. It updates irregularly but is always a great read.)

I wish I had more links to give, but this one guy really has been the genesis for the awareness of collaborative roleplay on the Internet. Remember that, in the end, it's not about what rules you use or whether you're doing it "right;" it's about creating a story and characters, and playing a game we all enjoy.

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As you know, I find the whole concept fascinating.

I also use the word 'fascinating' entirely too often.

But aside from that -- Sandy has GMd campaigns wherein he distributed other responsibilities to other players, including storytelling aspects. We all ought to swap ideas some time. Once he spent a couple of hours describing to me the world he built and the (never to be completed, sadly) story arc, and it was damned cool.

I also use the word 'fascinating' entirely too often.

darthmaus ... Mr. Spock ... separated at birth?

When I first got my hair cut, I liked to think that it looked a little Vulcan-like...

Of course, now I look like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. Please slap me if I ever say "ZOIKS!"

(insert stuff about MUSHing being somewhat further along that progression than generic-tabletop roleplay here)

(insert stuff about consensual group worldbuilding)

True, MUSHes et. al. are farther along that continuum, but the context makes a big difference. In a MUSH, the infrastructure and history goes a long way to making the model of task distribution a given. People have tried to do a GM/players model in MUDs, but it doesn't suit the medium as well as the collaborative setups that are the norm.

In a paper and pencil RPG, there is an existing paradigm which has to be noticed, inspected, considered, and discarded before the players can move to a model further along the collaborative roleplay continuum. And since I'm more of a paper and pencil kind of player, I have a vested interest in expanding people's awareness of the possibilites. :)

"I'm offering you my body, and you're offering me semantics!" -- Clerks

I know that the conventional way of describing roleplaying as *I* know it is 'pencil-and-paper', but for me the salient difference between, say, playing D&D with a bunch of friends in someone's basement and MUSHing (and please note that I have no idea what I'm talking about, having not played any online RPGs of any sort) is that it's in-person face-to-face interaction with people I know in meatspace.

This is important to me because I, personally, don't connect very well with people I know only in an online context. However, I *have* had very satisfactory roleplaying experiences face-to-face, without any dice or paper or manuals.

So basically the idea of a MUSH sounds great, but because of how I interact with people I'd love to take some of those aspects and work them into face-to-face roleplaying.

Re: "I'm offering you my body, and you're offering me semantics!" -- Clerks

Personally, I'd like to work some of those aspects into face-to-face roleplaying simply because they sounds useful and interesting.

In making the differentiation between media, I meant to point out that it's a matter of infrastructure and precedent. The infrastructure of a MUSH lends itself to a particular model of play. On the flip side, face-to-face doesn't really lend itself to any particular style of play, but there is a massive precedent set by 30 years of people playing games in the GM/player model.

Bringing collaborative roleplay elements into face-to-face games doesn't need to overcome the format, but it does need to overcome the preconceptions of the participants. The question I imagine encountering is, "We've always done it this way. What do you mean there's another way of playing?" and that embodies the inertia I imagine I would have to work against to introduce collaborative roleplay to an existing group of experienced players.

Re: "I'm offering you my body, and you're offering me semantics!" -- Clerks

The question I imagine encountering is, "We've always done it this way. What do you mean there's another way of playing?" and that embodies the inertia I imagine I would have to work against to introduce collaborative roleplay to an existing group of experienced players.

Really? I dunno. IME roleplayers are a pretty open-minded bunch, in general. Your Campaign May Vary, I guess ;-)

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