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Observers to role-playing

Started by Tor Erickson, December 11, 2001, 07:24:00 PM

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Tor Erickson

Hi All,

For three of our Sorcerer sessions so far we've had an outside observer sitting in.  Other than the occasional comment they do just that: observe.

What I'm finding is that it seems to have a positive effect on the game at hand.  Allow me to explain.  When I initially learned that we were to have an observer I was quite nervous.  Given the negative stigma of role-playing, I thought that the players might end up self-conscious with an observer around, and end up playing in a more satirical, self-mocking manner that hampered role-playing in general.  To my surprise, it seemed like just the opposite occured.  All of a sudden we weren't just performing for each other, we had an audience member to entertain/impress.  If we slipped into distracting side-jokes or commentary, we weren't just letting ourselves down, we were letting down the audience as well: and they were there to see us.  Overall the effect was to tighten up the role-playing experience and really keep all of us making the most entertaining, interesting decisions possible.  Finally, I think it introduced an element of pride into the group.  What we were doing wasn't just entertaining for us, it was entertaining for others as well.  And there's nothing like pride to get you to work your ass off to do good...

Has anybody else experienced this phenomena, or had different experiences with observers at their games?


Paul Czege

Hey Tor,

Twice now, my girlfriend has suggested that our Monday night group should play at her house at some point. And I have to say, I have some real reservations about the idea, stemming from how I think gaming would suffer under the scrutiny of her mother. I've had a couple of the players confide in me that they're self-conscious about authoring certain kinds of scenes, and addressing certain kinds of themes in their roleplay. They feel a vulnerability to exposing themselves when the subject matter of the game hits too close to home. And my girlfriend's mom rather exudes her critical personality. I just think the combination would be bad. So I've been handling the suggestion by mumbling rather vaguely when it comes up.

Perhaps you have a situation that's more optimized for success than you've let on? Is your observer someone who's had a long time arms-length fascination with RPG's? Or an interest in the genre of your game? Or is your observer perhaps someone who has an emotional investment in the creativity of one or more of the players?


[ This Message was edited by: Paul Czege on 2001-12-11 15:08 ]
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Tor Erickson

Hi Paul,

I think your post brings up some good points that I didn't mention originally.  Specifically, the observers were people who expressed direct interest in being audience members to the game.  One of them had never role-played in her life, though I suppose she's had passing exposure.  

Additionally, both the observers were members of our peer group in that we're the same age and go to the same school.

So as for the question of the mom watching on, I understand your apprehension.  I don't think I'd want my mom watching me role-play Sorcerer.  However, is it just that she'd be sort of wandering in and out, and kind of exuding her presence, or does the mom actually want to sit down and observe you guys play?

I think we can probably both agree that the former would be detrimental (there's something about a participant with little or no stake in the game that's going to bring it down--just as in anything if somebody takes it less seriously than the rest, there's probably going to be a problem).  But if it's the latter, and if she does make that investment to actually take the time and watch, I wonder... it might produce some pretty interesting results.


EDITED THIS IN:  I think there was something about the observer that made it more okay to address mature themes via role-playing; you know, it wasn't just a bunch of gamer dorks sitting around rolling dice, the observer validated the content of the game. I know I'm expressing this poorly...  let me try in another way.  

I can visualize a case where you've got a group that would really love to deal with serious themes in their role-playing, but feel kind of pretentious and dorky doing so when it's just them.  So instead they end up focusing more on hack and slash and making jokes for each other.  But introduce a serious observer, and all of a sudden they have an excuse.  Now if they just sit around making puns about the villains names and throwing Doritos then the observer is going to A) pass out from boredom and B) think, "what a bunch of dorky gamers."

Does that make any sense?

[ This Message was edited by: Tor Erickson on 2001-12-11 15:27 ]


On the rare occasion that someone has offered/asked to sit in on a gaming session and observe, I almost always recommend that they don't. The simplest reason for this is that, honestly, watching other people play a roleplaying game is just slightly less exciting than watching my own beard grow.

Consider bridge, I usually tell them. Would you like to spend an evening sitting around watching other people play bridge? Especially if you didn't know the rules?

That's just me. Doesn't matter whose group it is. I get really bored if I'm not participating, and I figure it's a safe bet that most other people would, too.

Michael Gentry


You make sense Tor.  

And while I agree with Mike to some degree, I really think the current group I play with could keep anyone entertained, in exactly the same way people can be entertained by sitting around a campfire telling stories.  God, we (each individual player, that is) spends half to two-thirds of each evening in audience mode, watching as the "focus" player gets his turn to work up his character's story arc, and we don't get bored.  In fact, it's pretty entertaining.


Roleplaying is an intensely personal experience for me, and I guess I'm a little selfish about it.  This is something I and few friends do (not nearly often enough), and it's not something I easily give up to an outsider.  If someone wants to see the inner workings of the circle, they should participate.

That's not to say that I've never been forced into situations where there are observers around, 'cause I have.  College dorm rooms, aprtmentcons, conventions...there's always someone lurking around that isn't an active particpant (and usually not even an active observer).  And the games always suffer for it.

- Scott

Tor Erickson

Hi Michael,

I think for the vast majority of the games I've played in and run, I'd agree whole-heartedly with your comments.  An observer would have had to shoot themselves in the foot just to keep awake through the sessions (which isn't to say they were boring to the players themselves).  However, something's different about this most recent run (I've got some extensive comments on it in Southern Fried Sorcer, parts 1 and 2, here in Actual Play).  

One of the player's girlfriends has sat through 2 entire sessions (2.5-3 hours each) and each time spent a good 45 minutes afterwards discussing the in-game events with the players themselves, like they'd just seen a movie together.  She gets us to fill her in on the sessions that she's missed, and she gripes when she can't make it to one.  This is a reaction that I wouldn't have believed possible if you had asked me a year ago.


Mike Holmes

2.5 to 3 hours. I think this says a lot. Note how movies rarely exceed this length. While participating may make longer sessions enjoyable, I think that keeping a sesson relatively short would be key to keeping an audience entertained, even a good one.

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Tor Erickson

Hi Scott,
I totally hear what you're saying.  Again, I think the difference is between a committed observer and an uncommitted one.  I think the roommate wandering through, the girlfriend/boyfriend hanging around to spend time with their significant other, and just about any other example of somebody who's reason for being there is something other than *to observe the game* is going to be distracting and detrimental.  And I think your comments on the personal nature of your game illustrate this excellently.  It's too easy when you're an uncommitted observer to make light of the role-playing act, to treat it with cynicism or sarcasm, or to look down on the participants.

You know, it's like when you're watching a serious movie in a darkened room.  You're into it, and you've been committed to watching it since the opening credits.  All of a sudden the door opens and some bozo walks in and makes a totally flippant remark about the film.  Since they have no commitment to the act of observing the film itself, it's all too easy for them to do something like that.  And in doing so they can really hurt it for the other audience members.  But if everbody in the room is a committed observer, then the chance that somebody will make a comment like that is severly reduced because in doing so they'd be wrecking their enjoyment as well.

Of course, the question arise, if they're there observing the game, why shouldn't they just play?  Hmmm...




They should play.  At least, that's how I feel.

My reluctance to have observers around isn't because I don't want to weather their cynicism; most people are smart enough to keep such opinions to themselves when around me.  Even a committed observer - such as my wife has occasionally asked to be - draws disapproval from me.  And the only rationale I have for it is that what happens in the gaming group is special, and can only be truly appreciated by its participants.

It's sort of the idea that when I play a game, I let it all hang out.  Okay, maybe not "it all", but a helluva alot.  And I expect the same from everyone else.  I'm putting something out there for them to see; I want the favor returned.  An observer can't do that (not that they couldn't contribute in some fashion, such as post-game discussion, but that's not where the magic lies).

But I don't necessarily put observers off, either.  Being an observer is being one step away from being a player, and I'll do everything I can to bring that person into the fold.  Because gaming is magical, and I love to share it with others.

- Scott
(sounding a bit too fantatical for his own tastes, but posting this anyway)

[ This Message was edited by: hardcoremoose on 2001-12-11 22:16 ]


My roommate, himself a somewhat lapsed roleplayer, started sitting in on the majority of the sessions of my last Amber game.  We never made a big deal of it or formalized it -- he'd just sit down when he had some free time.  He didn't participate

I'm pretty sure he enjoyed it, and it didn't seem to affect the game in any way.  Anyhow, after that game came to conclusion, he joined into the next game (some space opened up), so we're sans observer again.

For reference, our sessions were generally about four hours long.  Of course, it was Amber, so there were no mechanics-intensive stretches like you'd get in a D&D combat or anything, which might disengage an observer.

Evan Torner


Speaking as one of the aforementioned observers to one of Tor's Sorcerer sessions, it would be efficacious if I threw in my own two cents on the actual experience of observing.  I bring with me nine-and-a-half years of role-playing experience, both in non-functional and entirely immersive games and everything in-between.  Observing a table in action was nothing novel to me, and I believed it to be a valuable experience, by far outweighing the pleasure of watching one's beard grow.  In fact, it outweighed a lot of other activities I could've been doing that afternoon.

A good observer can, as Tor pointed out, bring out the best of a narrativist game; scenes acquire more drama, players remain focused, and the game itself accrues significance.  Some might even say... magic.

What makes the good observer?  Through introspection, I'd say several attributes made my presence at Tor's game on Saturday a success:

1. Patience.  Don't let a guy with ADD or hyperactivity problems observe your game.  Sometimes scenes/combat/OOC decisions take a while to make.  An observer must chill.
2. Understanding of the Role-playing Premise.  Not that the observer needs to have a full grasp of what GNS style of game they will be watching, but they should at least have some expectations of a certain dynamic between the GM and players, dice-rolling, etc.
3. Background.  Tor filled me in on the relationship map and what he intended on doing during the session, thereby enabling me to take a harder look at what the players were doing, rather than waiting for both the GM exposition AND the PC reaction.
4. Amiability with the Players.  Obviously, if you're coming in from outside of the players' accustomed set of expectations or are just a complete jackass, you might alter the table dynamic a little.
5. Meeting the Players Beforehand.  It's good to get to know the people before you observe them in a role-playing environment, as it becomes easier to analyze their behavior as characters in a fantasy world.
6. Keeping the Pucker Shut.  You can talk when you don't think it will break the game's focus, which should be a rarity at a good game.

Some of these might be self-explanatory, but take a look at your past experiences with a disruptive observer and you will find that any one of these suggestions was probably not followed in any one of those scenarios.


Tor Erickson

Hi Evan,

Welcome to the Forge!

Just a brief comment on one of your comments:  namely, "keep the Pucker Shut."  I think that while it's very easy for an observer to quickly become obtrusive, I think well-timed, appropriate comments are not obtrusive at all, and can actually add to the overall experience.  I found that with both you and the other observer, the few comments that you did make added to the game or gave some interesting insight.  I also think that in a lot of situations the players might welcome outside comments or ideas when they're in a sticky spot or a moral bind.

Great comments, though; good guidelines for having somebody "sit-in".



I've had pretty good experiences with introducing people to RPG by inviting them to attend as audience first.  Use this opportunity to let them grok the concept and the mode of interaction; let them page through the source materials.  In about half of these I've had the observer introduced to the game about half way through; in the other half in the next session or so.  Possibly the best thing, IMO, for a newbie-observer, is to be partnered with a a regular player who can comment and editorialise for the observer sotte vocce while play continues.  Thye big problem for observers is that much of the decision making is invisible; commentary on how the numbers intercta and why decisions are being taken, for backstory reasons too, all helps.
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"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci


This may sound funny considering my above statements, but here goes...

Can RPGs (not LARPs) be considered performance art?  Would certain game designs (narrativist, rules-lite) facilitate such a thing?  Is this a goal worth considering?

Considering how many positive experiences people seem to have had with this whole "observer" thing, I'm starting to wonder if this is something to be investigated.

- Scott

Mike Holmes

By excluding LARP, Scott, do you mean that LARP is obviously performance art?

I see no difference between LARP and tabletop here. That is, either of them could be performance arts if you wanted them to be so. I'd think that LARP would produce a more salable product, but otherwise...

From the definition of each participant as part audience, all RPGs and related forms are performance arts. POV.

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