I tried a weird experiment this past weekend. On Friday, I assaulted 6 of my friends with a random, cryptic series of gifs and then asked them to pick characters, namely teachers at a school somewhere in Michigan. I had them choose strengths and weaknesses, had them describe their relationships to other characters and had them come up with a fear for their character. This all built into the culmination of the experiment on Saturday, which I’ve dubbed “Golden Hills” after the name of the school they work at.
This all came from an idea I had one evening regarding the concept of running an RPG through Facebook messenger. I wanted to see how to make it as streamline as possible, eliminating the use of outside dice rollers and whatnot for the players so that every skill check and dialogue and everything could happen smack dab in the chat. What we ended up with was a moderately sloppy, very chaotic and overall very fun and engaging session of a ramshackle system I developed and updated as I went. It definitely has a ways to go, but it’s a sound foundation.
So background on this is that I had an idea of doing an RPG in real-time. Like, you make a check, but the results of that check don’t occur until the allotted REAL WORLD time that it would take someone to do that. Example: somebody wants to board up a window, they have all the supplies, one can assume that would take maybe about 10 minutes of rapid work for this particular window. They make the check, succeed, and then other stuff occurs until 10 minutes later when they have finished. So I got to thinking, how would that work? Wouldn’t that be boring and demand people spend like a WHOLE day doing very little in the grand scheme of an RPG? There were too many things that typically occur in RPGs that would result in an “alright, good session everybody, we’ll see everyone next time!”
Then I thought, what about doing it in a chat space. Everyone could be going about their lives and then just check the message stream occasionally for updates. This person did this, or that person did that, or giant wasps are attacking the school, all while they carry about their normal daily routine. This works extremely well for my real-time idea, since I could then pose scenarios and those available to respond to them could make action, while those unavailable would just have to fall in line, which also creates incredible tension since encounters could literally happen at any time. From this line of thinking, I quickly decided upon an apocalyptic type scenario, since the main focus of the mission would be survival. Thus, if someone wants to spend the day farming, that can just be it. Wake up at 7am, “I wanna farm today and get the food supply in check,” and then at 5pm the same day decide to just rest after a long day’s work. But nobody then feels like they wasted their day or wasted a session since a) other events may occur at any time and b) they are out in the real world doing their thing.
The first problem I ran into was keeping the chat thread clean. Any person who has played RPGs knows that there is a lot of talk that floats the table. Characters interact with other characters, players ask each other and the GM questions, players randomly chat about a cool event or a bad roll, etc etc etc chatter chatter chatter. I decided to take a nod from old school Text Based adventures and laid out text-based commands the players could input to direct their text to a certain player or to the GM. I changed my name in the chat to SIM.CON, short for Simulation Controller, to give myself some distinction and also push a bit of ARG element I added to give the room flavor. If players wanted to discuss anything directly with me, like questions about gameplay or rules, they would begin their message with “SIM.CON:” and then type the message. Dialogue directed to a specific character would have “DIRECT: CHARACTER_NAME:” before it. Any out of character statements, which were asked to be kept minimum and be done outside of the simulation chat, since personal message threads were a click away, would be preceded with “WHISPER:.” Any general dialogue or “I want to do this” or “my character goes here” or whatever did not require a preceding phrase. I then changed everyone’s name in the group to their character’s names to make pinpointing choices and actions easier.
As I stated, I flaired things up a bit. The overarching narrative was that everyone was selected for a simulation by some sort of mysterious organization/AI, the SIM.CON character, which I plan to elaborate on as time goes by. This creepy, cryptic entity delivers a lot of spooky and often random messages and speaks in a very uniform way. I try to keep my dialogue very robotic and to the point, logical and direct. For style, I throw in error messages at times. These error messages are also used to cut down on chatter, as messages the SIM.CON perceives as incorrect inputs or clogging up the stream will result in an error such as:
“((ERR: INVALID_COMMAND…code3672- – 80v app to sbjct THEO))”
So, imaginary people were being tortured. Hey, it’s what writers do all the time. Deal with it. NOTE: The first person to have a message like this was my sweet, compassionate Jeremy who was playing the Guidance Counselor. He was surprised, to say the least.
Anywho, the second and probably most obvious problem was how to resolve checks. Like I said I didn’t like the idea of muddling up the chat with pictures of dice or input from third party dice rolling sites. I tested to see if there was any way to do rolls directly in messenger, but alas…. no dice.
So, I went simpler. How have people been resolving things all the way back in the dawn of man, or at least the dawn of the concept of paper and scissors?… yeah, rock paper scissors. I would have the players input an emoji in the messenger, either a fist, peace sign or flat hand, and then myself using a RPS generator, would deliver their result.
However, this felt really pass-fail and I wasn’t super happy with the limitation of it. There just wasn’t a ton of gray area and it didn’t really have much of a curve for harder decisions. Somebody saying “I want to instantly punch the devil in the scrotum” was going to have as easy of a time doing that as someone saying “I wanna rub this peanut butter on my scrotum.” It just felt limited.
So after considerable thought I came up with another method. I would give people an emoji and a number range. They would then send an amount of that emoji they feel appropriate. I would randomly select a number within that range and their result would be decided. In this method, not only does it increase difficulty for more difficult tasks, but it gave me the ability to have a range of success as well. So, if somebody was within 1 integer of the success number, they would succeed, but not as well as if they had guess the exact number. Honestly, an example explains it better.
Character wants to see what they can see in a dark field. I send them the eyeball emoji with a range of 1-5. They send back 4 eye emoji and the random number generated is 5, making their check a success. Now, had they picked one it would also have been a success. Think of the number range on a circle, so it loops back around, making one an adjacent integer to the highest number in the range. In this scenario, the character would see the large, hooded figure crossing the field slowly in their direction. However, since they did not score the exact number. They would not see the glint of the large knife the figure carried. For larger ranges on more difficult tasks, either the range of the successes is increased or two numbers are chosen (one without successful adjacent numbers) depending on the nature of the check. This is all super confusing and horribly put together, but the application worked, so screw you, this is my Facebook Messenger game that I did because I was bored and depressed, so I can make it as batshit crazy as I want!
This all went off relatively smoothly. Stuff happened in real time as the apocalypse quickly descended on this small town and the people in it. There were hiccups, sure, like me forgetting that one character was still trapped in the library and trying to get out. And sure some things happened in a more traditional RPG time, but I thing this will even out with practice and once we get to the more survivally/colony building part of the matter.
I plan to bring in more people too, once I get kinks worked out (I’m coming for you, Mr. Wilson). I think this format begs for a larger group, since stuff can happen fairly smoothly with a group of individuals all focused on individual tasks. It’s unlike other RPGs where everything needs to flow pretty smooth as one unit. Right at the get-go here we have one character stuck in town at the clinic while all the others are at the school, which rests on the outskirts of town. Who knows what’s gonna happen there.
Anyway, that’s my rambling report of how a weird Saturday experiment went. I personally love where it’s going and am so happy with how engaged and excited all the players seemed. This is what I love about RPGs in general: They’re so customizable. They can be molded and invented to fit the needs of group or the needs of an odd, eccentric GM who thinks about this stuff way too much. I love them so much for how social and creative they are. This experiment just reminded me of that.
More to come, possibly.