Playing On A Wave

Posted by on Oct 27, 2009 in Play, RPGs, Writing | 34 Comments

Wave interacts with Google Maps in a way that could be great for play.

Wave interacts with Google Maps in a way that could be great for play.

If you’re not careful, Google Wave becomes just another play-by-chat option. Everyone’s typing at once, filing their character’s actions in order, creating a mess of information from which meaning must be extracted and the narrative of play recombined, like a puzzle. Everyone’s submitting pieces with one hand and everyone’s putting them together into something cogent with the other. It’s why play-by-chat typically strikes me as somehow both tedious and hectic, demanding a lot of attention for not a lot of reward.

My hope is that Google Wave will play a little bit differently. To do so, though, it has to be used as something other than a chat program with an editable backlog. Instead of focusing on its ability to let us communicate via chat, and instead of focusing on its real-time behaviors, let us focus on its shared editing options and degree of persistence.

Let’s use it breathe life into a few documents, instead of rushing to smother us with entries in an ongoing chat.

Is it just me or is Wave a Firefly reference? The “shiny, cap’n” error messages I’ve received make think it is.

So I propose a bit of new grammar or protocol for gaming through Wave: instead of tracking individual contributions post by post and turn by turn, let’s collaborate to create a shared, singular record of some part of play, whether it’s as long as a scene of dramatic play or short as a round of combat. That record expands as each player adds his bit to the action, and in the end it reads as a simple, workmanlike account of the action, somewhere between a prose report and a script.

This is the approach I’m going to take when I (hopefully) use Wave to playtest an upcoming game. But first, I’m going to use it to play a bit of a Gumshoe-system game with some friends, because I think Gumshoe is a pretty great fit for this type of play: it’s highly textual, highly narrative, with a minimum of randomness and fiddly bits.

This is just a rough example of how a “grammar of play” might be formatted for writing and reading in a Wave RPG. First, we see the Narrator’s setup for the scene (very simple in this case):

Scene One: The Body

DOUGLAS and EDGAR walk into the alley, through dripping rain, to survey the body. Tonight, this grisly scene is their workspace, their place of business. They are murder police, and a citizen is dead.

DOUGLAS …

EDGAR …

As play progresses, text is added to the active scene up above. Added. New text doesn’t replace what came before except by Narrator fiat. The formatting of the text helps convey information to the readers (who are presumably also the players):

  • ALL CAPS are PC names, used as in a screenplay to draw attention to player turns. Ellipses are used to indicate where a player’s next turn should go in the narrative, like traditional gaming initiative.
  • Regular text is basic description, whether by the Narrator or the player.
  • Bold-face text reveals when an ability is being invoked/used in play.
  • Italics are edits added in by the Narrator to reveal the response to such actions or to insert new information.
  • Dialogue is handled like a stage play, but with quotation marks for clarity.

Below the gameplay record, between the first scene and the second scene, players might chatter about what to do next, but their actual actions are written into the scene above, written into the actual account of the story as it happens, expanding the account and contributing to the official record. Chatter is behind-the-scenes talk and planning. The scene “plays out” in entries with headers like “Scene One: The Body” and “Scene Two: The Witness.”

(Maybe chatter even happens in another, simultaneous wave, which the Narrator might ignore as player planning, just as the players aren’t privy to the Narrator’s planning on her side of the computer screen.)

Now let’s look at the same record with some players’ actions in there. First Edgar happened to go, stating that he wanted to use his Evidence Collection skill in the scene (and writing it straight into the prose):

Scene One: The Body

DOUGLAS and EDGAR walk into the alley, through dripping rain, to survey the body. Tonight, this grisly scene is their workspace, their place of business. They are murder police, and a citizen is dead.

DOUGLAS…

EDGAR immediately sets to work with Evidence Collection, gathering up fibers from the body and any other available evidence.

Technically, Edgar maybe should have waited for Douglas, but in this case he’s just putting dibs on the skill he plans to use, and the Narrator can choose to either wait for Douglas or keep things moving. Remember, the top-to-bottom reading of the piece already determines order of action, as in regular prose, so we have an intuitive order-of-operations here—things happen in the order they appear in the account. The Narrator could always swap Edgar’s text for Douglas’s to reframe the order of operations, if she wanted to.

The Narrator then comes in and writes some follow-up description to Edgar’s actions, deleting part of Edgar’s post (“and any other available evidence“) and replacing it with more detail learned through the use of the skill. She writes it in italics to denote new information given out by the Narrator. The Narrator is still the final arbiter of the scene, so that text shouldn’t get altered by the players:

Scene One: The Body

DOUGLAS and EDGAR walk into the alley, through dripping rain, to survey the body. Tonight, this grisly scene is their workspace, their place of business. They are murder police, and a citizen is dead.

DOUGLAS…

EDGAR immediately sets to work with Evidence Collection, gathering up fibers from the body and lifting a spent casing from the pavement with his pen. At least four or five shots fired, but only one casing found. Maybe somebody thought they cleaned up after themselves and just missed a casing?

DOUGLAS …

EDGAR …

Here, then, we see the same account a few minutes of play later, wherein Douglas has taken his turn (and chosen to use his Ballistics skill to scour the crime scene) and the Narrator has revealed what that skill uncovers (in italics). Edgar then chimes in with some dialogue that doesn’t really require a new action—it just dramatizes the action and characterizes Edgar a bit.

Scene One: The Body

DOUGLAS and EDGAR walk into the alley, through dripping rain, to survey the body. Tonight, this grisly scene is their workspace, their place of business. They are murder police, and a citizen is dead.

DOUGLAS looks at the scene with an eye toward ballistics. He prowls the edges of the alley, looking for broken bricks, eyeballing the victim from afar at first, getting up the nerve to get closer while he finishes his coffee. He discovers three small-caliber slugs in shallow holes in the brick wall behind the victim, each one a little too far outside to be bullets that tore through her — these are shots that missed. Somebody fired a lot of rounds here.

EDGAR immediately sets to work with Evidence Collection, gathering up fibers from the body and lifting a spent casing from the pavement with his pen. At least four or five shots fired, but only one casing found. Maybe somebody thought they cleaned up after themselves and just missed a casing?

EDGAR: “Our guy isn’t as tidy as maybe he thought.”

DOUGLAS …

EDGAR …

Douglas and Edgar would continue their investigation by writing out other skills they intend to use, and describing them in use. The Narrator would respond by revealing what those skills uncover. When all the clues have been discovered, the Narrator ends the scene and begins a new one, which unfolds and builds toward completion the same as this one.

When action breaks out and it’s time to roll the dice, Google Wave has an app for that. Players just roll the dice in the text, hiding it away in brackets, and let the Narrator describe the outcome. For example:

Douglas whips out his sidearm and fires off two shots straight away — BAM! BAM! — then braces the gun with his free hand and scans the room for more trouble. [2 points of Shooting for 1d6+2 (3)] Both shots rattle off into the dark, beating back silence for a few seconds. His ears ring. He can hear the target sprinting into the night, but he sees only night-darkened brick and falling rain.

(The highlighting on the dice is done automatically in the program.) In this case, Douglas spends two points from his Shooting ability but misses the shot’s Difficulty of 4. Instead of spending hours on a few rounds of combat, though, we resolve it with a few simple lines of prose and a built-in die-roller.

Perhaps best of all, this kind of play doesn’t require rapt attention during a discrete play session. Instead, you can play gradually over the course of a week as players log in and out from their homes and offices, on lunch or a smoke break, all across the planet. This makes Google Wave potentially revolutionary in a way that a really great chat program doesn’t — it is persistent, it is editable, it is easy to use, and it facilitates a division of information, meaning it can help thwart confusion.

I don’t know if it’s truly revolutionary yet, but I intend to test this style of play and find out if it’s fun. If it is — if Google Wave is fun, easy, and online all at the same time — then it could seriously alter the way I play games by changing when and with whom I get to play. That ain’t nothing.





34 Comments

  1. Daniel Bayn
    October 27, 2009

    Sounds like a great approach. I particularly like the use of screenplay format.

    A few years ago, I ran a game on a wiki in a similar manner: we edited our procedural chatter into prose as we went. It was a big improvement over PbP forum threads and still delivered the convenience of asynchronous play. I was also quite pleased with the resulting prose.

    I’ve been looking forward to this sort of thing ever since I first heard about Wave 🙂

    Reply
  2. Brand Robins
    October 28, 2009

    Wicked good idea. I especially love the ability to use Google Maps and the potential of street view to move the game right down onto ground level.

    Reply
  3. Peter Darley
    October 28, 2009

    I’m starting up a Trail of Cthulhu game via Wave. We haven’t started play yet (still getting campaign frame down, etc.). I was planing something similar where the end result is a document that describes the action of the game. I’m going to ask my players to read your proposal and see if we want to follow it. Even if we don’t follow it exactly, it’s great food for thought. The waves for our game have been set to public, if anyone is interested in observing: https://wave.google.com/wave/#restored:wave:googlewave.com!w%252BbyGy34raA

    Reply
  4. JDCorley
    October 28, 2009

    Hell yes!! This takes the Code of Unaris’ gimmicky “editing” to a new and better level. Great job. Let’s play! (As soon as the thing opens.)

    Reply
  5. Will Hindmarch
    October 28, 2009

    Thanks for the comments, y’all.

    I’m eager to see actual play go down, Peter. Thanks for sharing your game wave with us groundlings. I’m eavesdropping already. Have fun!

    Reply
  6. Gareth-Michael Skarka
    October 28, 2009

    It’s not just you — it is a Firefly reference. “Waves” were the long-distance communications sent and received on the show.

    Reply
  7. Will Hindmarch
    October 28, 2009

    Indeed they were. But it didn’t occur to me that it might be an explicit Firefly gag until I started seeing error messages that individual waves might “experience turbulence and then explode” or that “everything’s shiny, cap’n.”

    How long until Google Cortex, then, do you think?

    Reply
  8. Russell Bailey
    October 28, 2009

    Interesting stuff. I may have to give it a spin.

    Reply
  9. David
    October 29, 2009

    Great idea, but I was confused by one possible typo:

    “instead of focusing on its real-time behaviors, let us focus on its shared editing options and lack of persistence.” – I think you meant to omit “lack” there at the end, considering your later text.

    Reply
  10. Will Hindmarch
    October 29, 2009

    Thanks for catching that, David. It was left over from a section I did on how Wave is both persistent and not persistent — optionally persistent — that I cut for being wishy-washy. Maybe obviously.

    Reply
  11. Seth Ben-Ezra
    October 29, 2009

    >I don’t know if it’s truly revolutionary yet, but I intend to test this style of play and find out if it’s fun. If it is — if Google Wave is fun, easy, and online all at the same time — then it could seriously alter the way I play games by changing when and with whom I get to play. That ain’t nothing.

    Please, please, PLEASE report back when you’ve done this to let us know how it goes.

    Reply
  12. Randy
    October 29, 2009

    What a fascinating approach. I love it… I hope it works as you think it will. I’d love to get into something like that myself.

    Reply
  13. Matt
    October 29, 2009

    Will,
    Do you have a link to that Gumshow wave? I’d love to lurk and watch it. (I picked up Mutant City Blues recently and I am digging it, though I won’t be playing it.)

    Reply
  14. Nick
    October 29, 2009

    That murder scene is the loading dock for my college theater.

    Reply
  15. Will Hindmarch
    October 29, 2009

    Thanks, you all, for coming by and reading. Nice to see you.

    Matt, my actual play experiment hasn’t begun yet. Even then, I get the stage fright, and may not make the wave public. But I’ll weigh in when I see how it’s working.

    Nick, I did a couple of semesters at Columbia College, which is why I picked the spot I did. I miss Chicago terribly.

    Reply
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  19. Rich Ranallo
    October 31, 2009

    I love how going to College in Chicago is almost universally referred to in the same tone as having gone to prison. I didn’t go to UIC for two years, I did two years at UIC. And I’m also missing Chicago.

    Great article, Will. I’ll be stealing from it for my 17th Century Unknown Armies game on Wave.

    Reply
  20. Nick Riggs
    November 2, 2009

    I guess Wave will be free, but I’m surprised that no-one’s mentioned tools like Fantasy Grounds, where this is exactly how RPGs are played already.

    Reply
  21. Rich Ranallo
    November 2, 2009

    Nick: “free” means a lot. I loved the Fantasy Grounds demo at GenCon, but there’s no way I could get my entire old group to buy in at $30+ in addition to rulebooks in order to play.

    Reply
  22. Steven
    November 2, 2009

    Hey Will, mind if I ask what gadget/robot you used for dice rolling in your example wave?

    Reply
  23. Will Hindmarch
    November 2, 2009

    I’m using the Dice Bot that seems to have been built by Google. (Is that right?) You just add dice-bot (at) appspot.com to your contacts, and then include them as a participant in your wave. It automatically adapts things like “1d6+2” into a randomly derived value in just a few seconds. So far, it seems to work reliably and cleanly.

    Reply
  24. Steven Johnson
    November 3, 2009

    Ah yes there it is, thank you. I keep making the mistake of assuming that these things will be listed in the extensions gallery wave, and they rarely are.

    Looks like this dice bot is only useful for systems where you want the results of multiple dice in a single roll – like say, for example, 7d10 – to be aggregated rather than listed.

    After poking around some, I discovered a roller bot (add contact randomleetwenty (at) appspot.com and include in the wave, as with dice-bot) that allows for more sophisticated expressions that work very well for games using White Wolf’s Storytelling System, Weapons of the Gods, and so forth.

    For instance, typing 10d10ws8 tells the bot you want to roll 10 dice with 10 sides that are considered a success on a result of 8 or better and explode on a result of 10; an example output of that expression would be 10d10ws8:3 successes [3, 3, 1, 9, 1, 9, 2, 4, 8, 3].

    Just thought I would share in case folks are looking for options with dice rollers.

    Anyhow, I enjoyed your article.

    Reply
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  27. Ryven Cedrylle
    November 18, 2009

    Something that I’ve found to be very helpful though few have mentioned it so far is the use of interrupt blips. If you reply within the body of a blip, it creates a little (+/-) icon that allows you to hide the interruption and see the original entry contiguously. I frame all of my scenes with a single “Start Scene” and “End Scene” blip, and then interrupt myself with the rest of the text. This way I can skip past old posts that I don’t need to read anymore and condense the length of the Wave.

    Reply
  28. Will Hindmarch
    November 18, 2009

    I’m not seeing the (+/-) icon you’re talking about Ryven. Is this something that hasn’t materialized throughout the whole preview yet, maybe?

    Reply
  29. Matt
    November 26, 2009

    This is a great idea! I’ve got some friends spread across Canada and the U.S. that rarely get together in one place at one time, so this would allow us to run a game in a pretty interesting way.

    Reply
  30. Dan
    November 30, 2009

    Will, the +/- icon in question is the little speech balloon following the last word of the original post before the in-line reply. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be in effect throughout the preview.

    Reply
  31. JDCorley
    December 6, 2009

    Hey Will, I just got my Wave invite, how is this going? (Or is it?) I have an idea for how to use this idea in conjunction with Greg Stoltze’s underrated new noir game “A Dirty World”. Shoot me a msg at jasondcorley on the wave. Later!

    Reply
  32. Liche
    December 7, 2009

    This is interesting, I have been playing F-to-F RPG’s over the last 8 or 9 years on IRC, using Dice bots. I like the ability to include Google maps, so I’m going to give this a try for my Nightbane game. The systems I have played are GURPS, Pladdium (Rifts and Nightbane) D20 Modern, Unknown Armies, and BESM. All of these have played well over IRC.

    Reply
  33. Jeremiah Genest
    December 8, 2009

    We’re doing an occult spy Gumshoes game on Wave. Ping me if you want to watch.

    Reply
  34. Will Hindmarch
    December 9, 2009

    We’ve gotten the in-line replies working (we just didn’t know they were there at first), and we’ve been doing an online playtest of a new game for a couple of weeks. Without a scheduled meeting time, it’s slow going, and it’s tricky to feel out the boundaries of your own time to shine — short paragraphs fill up quickly with the kind of casual characterization that would take mere seconds at the game table. But it’s a nice dose of game-ness in the midst of the day.

    Jeremiah, I’m not sure I have the bandwidth to monitor another Wave game right now, but please come by and drop us a line with your thoughts on how it’s formatted and how well it’s going for you. I’d love to hear more about it!

    Reply

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