TCK Roleplaying

Jan 2014

Why Two-Player?

In the realm of roleplaying games, a strictly two-player experience is still rare. That reality is changing with the release of many two-player games (or “twosies” as Ron Edwards likes to call them). For example, I am looking forward to the publication of Seth Ben-Ezra’s long in development, Showdown. Games like Sweet Agatha and S/Lay w/Me continue to be some of my favorite rpgs, period. The recent trend in micro-games is likewise prime territory for twosie development and play. However, the majority of games default to multi-player mode, or at least include a multi-player option. I am often asked why I don’t publish an “official” (whatever that means) variant for Mars Colony that would allow for more than two people to play simultaneously. There are, after all, some lovely multi-player fan variants for the game. Why not at least adapt one of those for inclusion in future releases, or in Mars Colony: 39 Dark? To those people I must politely respond, “No thank you. Not interested.” But whhyyyy? Well – I hope to answer that question in this essay. The two-player experience is a different, more intimate experience that allows for both mechanical and narrative techniques not easily achieved in the multi-player form. I have absolutely nothing against more traditional, multi-player design, but at the same time I remain dedicated to exploring the twosie and its unique opportunities. Twosies may not be for everyone, but they are certainly for some.

Focus, Friend

One of the primary reasons that two-player roleplaying games are so rewarding is because they offer a type of narrative that is so very different from a more “traditional” multi-player game. I say “traditional” because multi-player has been the default for years. Even if my friend Jim and I were playing the D&D starter set one-on-one back in the day, the rules assumed that we would have a dungeon crawling party – that there would be a host of elves, fighters, and wizards to share the load of killing monsters and hauling away loot. This template set the norm for most games to come even when the template didn’t fit the narrative it was attempting to model. For example, look at a game like Shadowrun. Yes, of course you can play Shadowrun much like a game of D&D. You can put together a team of elves, fighters, and wizards, and “dungeon-crawl” your way through the corporate high-rise. The game reads that way, it works that way in play, and the rules support a large party of PCs. On the other hand, much of the fiction that came with Shadowrun and its supplements, from the character profiles to the blurbs sprinkled throughout the text, hint at another type of story. In this other type of story, you have a lone shadowrunner, or maybe a duo, that live a hard knock life just scrapping by. Maybe they make a living as investigators, exploring supernatural phenomenon. Or maybe they work alone as high society cat burglars. Whatever the case may be, Shadowrun inspired me to think outside of the box. I suddenly wanted to tell a story that wasn’t just about reliving the movie Sneakers in a modern day fantasy setting. I was looking for the type of narrative that played like a film noir novel, or like Bladerunner. But I couldn’t do that with Shadowrun because it was designed for something else. It was designed to fit the D&D template.

One thing I learned while designing my first rpg, Hero’s Banner, is that I truly appreciated the concept of the protagonist. I enjoy stories that revolve around the strong development of a single character. In part, this is because I also appreciate shorter narratives. How can you pack in all the character development I want if you have a movie-length story with six different protagonists? With tight writing, and a planned arc, perhaps it’s possible. In a roleplaying game where you are forced by the nature of the form to improvise and revise, no. It’s just not possible outside of a long-form game. With just one or two sessions and many PCs, the different characters will necessarily feel underdeveloped. This same concept plays out in books, movies, and roleplaying games. Take Hero’s Banner. I have GMed the game with every player count from one through (an insane) five. The amount of detailed, focused character development that occurred in each of those games was inversely proportional to the player count. One-on-one saw a very focused, heart-wrenching story about a noble destroying himself. With five, it was a raucous, world-spanning epic. But on the level of individual characters, the story was impersonal. The only way the multi-player game could have achieved the same sense of character development present in the one-on-one experience would have required a long-form, multi-session game where each character received significant screen time. Then we would have had a game that looked a lot more like HBO’s production of A Game of Thrones. As it was, however, we didn’t come close. There’s nothing wrong with short, punchy play and superficial character development, but it’s not what I want out of my roleplaying all of the time.

Now let’s circle back to Bladerunner, one of my favorite movies. If the movie was the product of a roleplaying session, how many PCs would have participated? Certainly Deckard would have been a PC. Rachael would have probably been a second, and maybe one of the fugitive replicants – I’m thinking Pris or Roy – could have been a third. But that’s really it unless you were playing a game that was designed to highlight certain PCs at the expense of others. No other characters in Bladerunner are developed enough to have warranted full PC treatment. No other characters have a strong character arc. They may be interesting. I wouldn’t want to cut them from the movie; however, it’s difficult to imagine them as anything but side characters. And even given all of this, I think most people watching Bladerunner identify with Deckard. He’s the primary protagonist, the character that the entire movie revolves around. In other words, if Bladerunner really was a story that was generated during a roleplaying game, I would not be surprised to learn that there was really only one PC: Deckard. Everyone else could have just as easily been played as an NPC.

Fine. Let’s say you accept my analysis. Why go through this exercise? Because Bladerunner is the type of story I wanted to tell while I was running Shadowrun. It’s the type of story that I want to tell now when I roleplay. And Bladerunner is a two-player type of story. There’s no troupe of adventures. There’s no need to divide up the cognitive load. You need one person to frame the world and introduce Roy, and Pris, and all of the others – and you need one to concentrate just on Deckard’s inner turmoil while the Vangelis soundtrack plays on.

It’s not just Bladerunner, though. Think about your favorites movies or books. How many of them are ensemble pieces, and how many of them focus instead on just one or two protagonists? I know I’m not alone in saying that most of the stories I love fall into the latter category. Yes, there are plenty of book series that are filled with interesting, well-developed characters. And there are plenty of roleplaying games to support that sort of Tolkien-inspired play. But what I’m looking for, and what I want to design right now, are games that are focused on supporting the single protagonist. Give me one novel’s worth, one movie’s worth of sharp play that allows for a single character (maybe two) to progress through a well-defined arc. That’s a powerful play experience that I can complete in just one or two evenings. It’s exciting. It’s fascinating. It’s also a game in need of a different sort of ruleset.

Forget Play-by-Committee

While opportunities for mechanical innovation abound in exclusively two-player design, I think it’s important to pause and recognize that a multi-player game that is also focused on a single protagonist is possible. Focus on a single protagonist is not solely the purview of twosies, nor do I intend to imply that twosies cannot support a rewarding troupe-style game. On the other hand, I do believe that a two-player game offers certain advantages, and is a natural fit for single-protagonist play. Nonetheless, we can examine two multi-player games that are designed for single-protagonist play. Both Gregor Hutton’s Remember Tomorrow and Ron Edward’s Spione are designed around the concept that, when the game starts, no one at the table necessarily knows who the protagonists are going to be. Only through play does it become clear which characters will be major and minor. While a player may start the game believing that his character is the primary protagonist, each game is designed to upset the normal convention that keeps PCs sacrosanct. In Remember Tomorrow it is possible to trade PCs amongst the different players. Character ownership is dynamic, and the focus shifts from one character to the next depending on how everyone at the table collaborates to steer the overall narrative. Likewise, in Spione the game encourages a feeling of paranoia and fluidity. Just as its Cold War theme is emphasized in the relationship of handler to spy, the game also leans on the Cold War idea that individual spies are disposable. In this way, PCs may find themselves as support characters suddenly shifted to the wings of the story as the game progresses.

In both Remember Tomorrow and Spione, players still have authority over multiple characters. Whether that control shifts, as in Remember Tomorrow, or the role of a character is deemphasized, as in Spione, both games spread the labor of playing multiple characters over multiple players. By comparison, we can look at the way I demo Hero’s Banner at conventions for an example of another way to leverage multiple players to create a single-protagonist game. When I demo Hero’s Banner, I sit down with three players at a time, and ask them each to play out a scene for the same hero. Because every Hero’s Banner character has three primary drives in life, it is a natural fit to ask each player at the table to take charge of one such drive. When Player A finishes his scene, Player B takes over. Player B works through a scene focused on a different drive, but also has to live with the consequences prompted by Player A’s scene. While any given scene is playing out, everyone at the table is encouraged to give feedback to the active player and otherwise participate both as spectator and side-seat director. In this way, you have a game that focuses on a single protagonist that is nonetheless played by multiple people. It’s an enjoyable experience, and one worth exploring. However, it is not the same as a twosie.

While it is possible to find two-player rpgs that don’t focus on single-protagonist play, most do – and they do so because the face-to-face format reduces options. As a designer of a twosie, you can set the game up so that there is (a) one GM and one player, (b) no GM and two players trading narration, or (c) one or both people playing multiple protagonists. Given the mental load required for option (c), it’s not difficult to understand why most authors opt for single- or two-protagonist play in an exclusively two-player design. Besides, if you want multiple protagonists, why not take advantage of the multi-player form?

Most twosies are built from the ground up to support single-protagonist play. We can see this most clearly in, for example, the introductions to Ron Edward’s S/lay w/Me, Bret Gillan’s Cold Soldier, and Kevin Allen Jr.’s Sweet Agatha. There are plenty of other examples. Open to page one in these games, and you’ll see what I mean.

From S/lay w/Me (it even starts on the front cover):

The monster will kill you. The lover is willing. […] Say it All: I am myself. I am canny, brutal, experienced. I laugh at the gods. I delight in life. My foes meet death swiftly.

From Cold Soldier:

The dead walk. A dark master has called the recently buried to serve in his army, to avenge the wrongs committed against him. You are one of these beings. […] One of you will be the Soldier. The other will be the Game Master (or GM). From here on I will speak only to the Soldier.

And finally from Sweet Agatha:

You’ve broken the seal, you can’t stop now. […] You (the Reader) are the main character. The story is about your personal search for answers in the disappearance of Sweet Agatha. The Truth will be in charge of what goes on around you, but don’t worry you’ll both have an equal say in the story, you just have different parts to play.

It’s not just that these games are about single-protagonist play, it’s that they are all taking advantage of the design decision to focus exclusively on two-player roleplaying. What all of these games have in common is that they speak directly to “you.” The rhetorical presentation, because each game is a twosie, can speak directly to the reader/player in a way that highlights the exclusive role he or she will play in the game to come. There is no question about who will be the protagonist: it’s you. This focus is a central conceit of the twosie design in S/lay w/Me, Cold Soldier, and Sweet Agatha; and the rest of each game, both rhetorically and mechanically, follows through on the promise of highlighting that single all-important character.

A slight variation on twosie rhetorical presentation reverses the text’s audience. I do this in my brief two-player game, Clank. Because I designed Clank as an introduction to roleplaying, I direct the text towards the person not playing the protagonist (i.e., towards the GM). I want the new roleplayer to be the protagonist, and the experienced roleplayer to run the game. Nonetheless, even in Clank it’s clear that the important character is the one and only protagonist. For example, I write: “Remember that, whatever happens, the story must revolve around the main character and a relationship arising out of the stranger in the kitchen.” The onus may be on the GM to entice the PC, but the quintessential twosie conceit of a direct relationship between main character and PC is still present.

Now let’s compare the excerpt from S/lay w/Me to a selection from another or Ron’s games, this time a multi-player game, Trollbabe. In Trollbabe, Ron uses his well-known metaphor of the rock band to explain what his game is all about:

Everyone involved will be both author and audience for the fiction. In this sense, it’s more like playing music than writing, directing, or acting. As with music, people’s instruments (the rules) differ yet combine. As with music, you can play in harmony, in counterpoint, in fugue, or even at times use dissonance.

Perhaps you disagree with the metaphor, but you can’t deny that the tone of Trollbabe is different from S/lay w/Me. In a band, can you ever be sure who’s going to take the lead? In a roleplaying game like Trollbabe, can you ever be sure who will play the lead? Even if a particular example of Trollbabe play ends up being a single-protagonist story, the laser focus on one player and one character is absent. It’s a jam session until further notice. What’s wonderful about two-player roleplaying games is the laser focus. There’s no messing around. You get right to it, and you know what it is right from the start. With that foreknowledge, you can do wonderful things in a very short amount of time.

With just two people at the roleplaying table, everyone gains focus. The players know what is expected of them. The game designer who knows this is able to focus his design. Rather than spending time and energy on the more complicated process of wrangling multiple player contributions into a cohesive play experience, the designer of a twosie can let loose the reigns and lean instead on the social conventions of conversation. If you have ever worked on a committee, or participated in a large meeting, you know how difficult it can be to get everyone on the same page, let alone to agree on anything. However, one on one, people can act quickly and with a unified purpose more easily. It’s simply a matter of numbers. Explaining my point of view to you, and then listening to you explain yours back to me is less time consuming and less demanding. If we need to reach an agreement, the resulting negotiation is simplified because there are less variables, less to agree on. The best two-player designs know this, and take advantage of the more conversational atmosphere.

To use some lingo, relying on player negotiation to resolve conflicts maps to the idea of Drama Resolution. It’s shocking how much more prevalent Drama Resolution is in two-player designs. Every twosie I’ve mentioned in this essay so far makes use of Drama Resolution for at least one significant portion of play. Then again, it should come as no surprise. Just as negotiation is easier when there are only two participants, so too is negotiation-based conflict resolution in a two-player roleplaying game. In Emily Care Boss’s Breaking the Ice, it is easy to see how she encourages a conversational, drama-based resolution. The Guide is instructed to help the Active Player not by rolling dice, but instead by asking for “more detail about events or more information about the character or setting,” and by making “suggestions for narration that the Active Player may choose to adopt” (21). More to the point, the players are supposed to “work together to come to agreements about what they want to do” (24). The game also makes use of Attraction Rolls (dice rolls) to drive the action, but the dice augment rather than define the negotiation between the players. Even though it is the Active Player who has final say after an Attraction Roll, both players are supposed to “share in the discussion of the outcome” and “[c]ome to a collaborative agreement on the characters’ interpretation of the events narrated” (31). Negotiation and collaboration are the primary way that conflicts are resolved in Breaking the Ice, and it is no coincidence. Because the game is two-player, it naturally encourages an active dialogue between the players at all times.

In a multi-player game with one GM and many players, it is typically only the GM who is engaged at all times. The players take turns narrating while the GM responds. The action and focus can shift wildly from scene to scene, as can the number of PCs involved. It is therefore easy for a player to temporarily disengage while the game continues. By comparison in a two-player game, no one is left out. Both players are engaged at all times, and can more readily participate in any negotiation taking place. That sense of connection allows for rulesets that rely 100% on Drama Resolution, such as in Sweet Agatha. In Sweet Agatha, despite the fact that there are no dice and no random resolutions to prod the action, play still feels natural and interesting. The players aren’t just free-forming their way through the game, but are instead using the information provided by the Clues and Goals to organize a narrative through negotiation. Because each player was connected and contributed to all previous scenes, they each have an investment in the outcome of the game that is difficult to match in a multi-player setting. In a two-player game, negotiations are collaborative yet tense because of the heightened level of creative buy-in. There is no opportunity for a player to mentally check out because, if he did, the game would simply pause. While players in a twosie may need to take more frequent breaks to mentally recharge, it is impossible for them to disengage or play on autopilot. You may find the demands of two-player games exhausting, but, to me, the level of engagement is a tremendous advantage.

As this discussion transitions from mechanics to the social risks of playing with just two people, I think it’s important to point out that there is one area in particular where the constraints of a two-player design necessitates some extra attention from the designer. A multi-player game, while less intimately conversational, does benefit from the increased creativity of multiple points of view. With so many voices at the table, there is usually a bounty of ideas to integrate into the fiction. The game can take many different and unexpected turns because there is always the opportunity for a fresh idea. Even when one or two players are creatively blocked, they can defer to someone else in the group to make a unique contribution that launches the game in a satisfying direction.

Not so with a two-player game. With just two, there are fewer potential ideas at the ready. If one player is blocked, then the other has to carry the entire weight of game – or else the game must be put on hold. Breaks are a healthy part of any roleplaying session and give everyone involved a chance to breathe and recharge; however, too many breaks and the game can fall apart. If a game exhausts the players by calling on them to be too creative too often, then it runs the risk of halting the process of play altogether. What a designer must avoid is the scenario that causes the players to say, “Too much! No more!” Less dramatically, the designer must also avoid a situation where the players cannot invent a way forward. With no satisfying ideas, the players could instead call it quits and move onto another game. As a designer, I want my customers to be happy with their purchase and satisfied that the game delivered from start to finish. As a player, I want a conclusion to the story I have begun.

To accomodate less players, most twosie designers impose creative constraints and provide additional creative “input” from the game system. Instead of relying on a committee of participants to produce interesting ideas, the game itself becomes a catalyst for creativity. In Sweet Agatha, the game rules may take up only a single large sheet of paper, but the full-color journal, complete with Clues that are physically cut from the pages and used as props during play, provide the players with a wealth of material from which to draw inspiration. The game is not a substitute for another player, but does take responsibility for many of the creative duties that additional participants would otherwise perform. When someone is creatively blocked, they need only look through the Clues to formulate another contribution. The blocked player is not required to invent something completely original, and can – perhaps to their relief – make use of the material provided by the game. Similarly, in Sweet Agatha each scene must begin with the introduction of exactly three new Clues and a clear goal. The goal provides the players with a framework within which to work. The players are free to focus on a single scene with a single goal, and can therefore focus their creative energy on the thematic content of the scene. Creative anxiety is reduced. Play can move forward. You may be tempted to label such restrictions “crutches,” but they, like any creative constraints, can serve as the seed of something creatively profound.

In my own game, Mars Colony, I provide similar creative inspirations. Before play begins, as part of the setup phase, players are asked to write down three things that they fear about their own government in real life. These Fear Cards are shuffled and revealed slowly during play. However, at no time are the players required to use them. Some critics have pointed out that the Fear Cards seem superflous. Perhaps. I don’t want to get defensive here, but I will explain my reasoning. The Fear Cards serve two purposes. First, they get the players thinking about politics. They set a tone and introduce potential themes in a low-risk play environment. Second, the Cards serve as inspiration as needed. If a game finishes without anyone explicitly referencing a Card in play, that’s okay because there was presumably enough other material in the mix. But the Cards are there if the players want them. They can serve as both a creative constraint (“I’m going to work this card into play.”) or as a creative inspiration (“This card gives me an idea!”). When used in either manner, the Card moves the game forward. Without the Cards, without something to rescue a player from blanking, the game might stall. With the Cards, the players are offered suggestions that look a lot like what others might contribute in a multi-player game. The game system is no substitute for another person, but can effectively anticipate the needs of players in a two-player setting.

It’s Okay to be Uncomfortable

While many players are excited by the promise of a game designed specifically for two players, others are worried. What they worry about varies, but, by in large, the concern is straightforward: “Playing with just one other person sounds way too uncomfortable.” I hear this from people all the time, mostly by those who have never tried a two-player game. The fear of feeling uncomfortable is understandable, I suppose. While a multi-player game offers the security of a group, a two-player experience appears more vulnerable, more exposed. Your contributions are clearly, and perhaps painfully your own. If you want to include emotional content, you must do so without the filtered, diffuse result that accompanies multiple people adding their own small piece to the larger story. Especially if you have never played a twosie, it is easy to think that the emotional content of the game will feel that much more awkward. However, my experiences with two-player games have taught me that these fears are misplaced. While a twosie can indeed lead to an emotionally acute game, it is generally more comfortable, and feels less exposed. In other words, while I can understand the intuition of the uninitiated, those nascent intuitions are flawed. What the two-player experience actually offers is both surprising and rewarding. As in any roleplaying game, it is important to play emotionally charged games with emotionally intelligent people, but barring outright immaturity (a danger in any game), the two-player experience is a venue that enhances emotional play rather than impedes it.

I feel as though I must first disspel an unspoken assumption about two-player roleplaying games – one that even I am guilty of from time to time. Because there are relatively few twosies available, and most of them are capital T Thematic and emotional, players often assume that the form itself is intimately and emotionally charged. Simply identifying this fear will, I hope, be enough to highlight its absurdity. There is nothing that says twosies are, by definition, more emotional than multi-player games. Almost everything that I have covered in the previous sections of this essay would apply equally to a hypothetical two-player game about, say, traditional dungeon crawling. Likewise, Sorcerer, My Life With Master, Dust Devils and others are all now classic games, and all rely heavily on thematic content rendered intense. Games in the vein of Dust Devils fit a particular style, and fans of that style barely raise an eyebrow over fears of feeling uncomfortable. Yes, there are boundaries to respect and rules to follow, but it is assumed that the intelligent gaming group can handle the thematic content of Dust Devils with skill and grace. But somehow the thought of playing a similarly themed game in a two-player format is frightening. Why? It is unfamiliar in process, but should not be alien in theme.

I want to turn on its head the notion that roleplaying with a partner instead of a group is somehow less safe or more vulnerable. If anything, the opposite is true. With a group, the dynamic is more complex. Knowing when someone is uncomfortable is more subtle and difficult. The action bounces from one player to another. The GM is distracted by multiple plot lines. Players can contribute in rapid fire succession so that it is easy to overlook the worried expression of a player feeling uncomfortable. And all of this is in addition to the power of peer pressure. Perhaps you have experienced a game where you kept your mouth shut for fear of upsetting the group dynamic. Would you have felt the same way with less players? With just one other? What designers and players alike have done to confront this myriad of emotional pitfalls is to slowly, over the years, develop systems for identifying, discussing, and limiting emotionally uncomfortable material in ways that everyone at the table can agree on (“lines and veils”, the X-Card, etc.). As a community, we have also learned to openly discuss intense themes and content in games.

However, this emotional maturity has been developed in the context of the multi-player experience. With just two, the landscape is different – but different in a good way. I won’t argue that concepts such as lines and veils don’t apply to two-player games, but I will openly wonder if they would have been as formalized if two-player games were the norm instead of the exception. Nothing is stopping the concerned player from using the techniques developed for multi-player games. A lines and veils discussion works just as well when playing S/Lay w/Me as it does when playing Sorcerer. At the same time, the inherent social dynamic of a two-player game makes it easier to identify and discuss what does and does not make us uncomfortable. Remember that a twosie is more akin to a conversation than a jam session. It is easier to talk with your gaming partner one-on-one than it is to wrangle a conversation with three or four others. Similarly, problems that crop up during play are more easily identified. In the same way that a two-player game will stall if a player is unable to contribute creatively, it will likewise stall when a player objects to emotionally charged content. While it can be unfortunately easy to overlook the worried expression on a player’s face in a multi-player game, it is difficult to miss when you are sitting face-to-face in a twosie. If an objection is identified, play can easily pause, a discussion can take place, and the game can resume. Moreover, the gaming relationship of just two players develops more quickly than it does among an entire group. Partners learn what does and does not cross the line. They adapt to match expectations. They actually become more comfortable more quickly. In other words, there is emotional safety in low numbers.

Finally, I want to discuss the big R word, “relationship.” I have said that a twosie game can help to develop a gaming relationship between two players. Relationship implies intimacy, which in turn makes some people uncomfortable. My first instinct is to say, “Get over it”; however, you take your concerns seriously, and so I will too. Cards on the table time. I get the impression from talking to people over the years that one of two things is going on here. On the one hand, some people think of gaming as a light-hearted pastime, and therefore shy away from anything that looks overly serious, like the word “relationship.” On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that some people are (I can’t think of any other way to put it) weirded out by the thought of spending so much time alone with another dude. Especially if they are talking about feelings. Soooo… let’s talk about it.

As gamers, we spend a lot of time playing make-believe with each other. A shared imagined space transforms character sheets into meaningful narrative that, with luck and skill, produces a satisfying experience that transcends simple cops and robbers. Going further, many of us choose to play emotionally intense, thematic games, and we learn to become comfortable sharing a charged experience with others. We even become comfortable sharing what, in another context, would identify us as vulnerable people. That move from make-believe to theme is powerful art. However, none of it would be possible without trust and relationships. In a group, that sneaking sense of fear and of sharing too much is vague and manageable. With just two, the interpersonal connection we develop is obvious. I would ask you to trust yourself and your fellow player enough to take advantage of that connection. The theme and power of multi-player games is all there in a twosie, but you can access it more quickly – and without the need to negotiate three or four competing visions of the story you want to tell. Yes, you will get to know that other dude through gaming. Yes, it might feel a bit weird at first. But you don’t have to date him (or her), and you don’t have to make out. You just play the game and enjoy it. I promise you that your worries are non-issues. That sense of unease – fear of the new – will quickly fade into the background, and all the familiar trappings of roleplaying will emerge. If I sound dramatic, so be it. I want you to try. I’d rather overdo it than undersell you.

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