Interview: Nathan Paoletta talks about Hunter: the Reckoning play-by-post

I’ve had an itch to do some interviews so when I see a topic I’d like to interview a friend about, I’m e-mailing some questions, editing it a touch and posting them here. If all goes well, these will be going up on Mondays.

Here is the first, interviewing Nathan Paoletta.

How did you get started playing Hunter: the Reckoning on the White Wolf Forums? Were you playing face to face tabletop games at that point?

I was playing face-to-face, yes. I actually was in high school at the time, and had been running games for my group of friends for years. We were playing all the White Wolf stuff at the time (2nd ed revised stuff, mostly Vampire and a little Mage). I was the most into it, and the one who bought all the books. I picked up Hunter: the Reckoning when it came out, and I really really dug it.

Now, this was the time that I think a lot of people have, when the whole group of us that used to spend whole weekends dungeon-delving was generating interests in other stuff, and we all ended up going to different high schools, so even though we were nominally always “playing something”, we didn’t actually sit down and play more than once a month or so, I bet.

I had hung out in the White Wolf chat rooms, actually, since I first picked up Vampire in…96, maybe? So I was already regularly going to the WW site to kind of bask in reflected gaming energy.

So this was 1999-2000, and I had this game that I really liked but had little likelihood of playing (I did end up running 2 sessions of what was supposed to be a longer campaign for my face-to-face group, but it fizzled out). At the time, WW had a dedicated forum for each game line, which were generally what you would expect of game discussion forums at that time.

But the Hunter forum was different! You have to understand that in H:tR, there’s an in-game thing called hunter-net, which was an in-world digital listserv that only Hunters could access (due to canonical fiat backed up by some in-world signature character handwavery). So the in-game fiction was presented almost entirely as emails from Hunters to the listserv, describing their experiences, asking for help, telegraphing their insane rantings, and so on.

So, I don’t know when this transition happened, but at some point the folks on the Hunter forum starting in-character posting as their Hunter characters posting to hunter-net. And some of them were really, really good writers and storytellers, so this medium worked really well for them to basically tell the stories of their characters experiences.

I lurked for awhile, and then realized that there was literally no barrier to entry and started posting. And it became a total community thing – you got lots of social cred for posting in the style of the canonical signature characters, not breaking the “rules” of the canon setting, and for telling cool stories.

Some folks (eventually including myself) coordinated meta-stories that involved multiple characters behind the scenes, essentially storyboarding out a scenario with all the participants via email and then having everyone post in character about it over time, kind of an unfolding world event for everyone.

Of course, there were individuals who contributed a lot to keeping everyone on board with keeping a certain tone and style, and if you deviated too much there was a lot of flaming to be done. But I was pretty safely ensconced on the majority side of what I liked to post and read, so I generally was in agreement about the “moderation” such as it was (almost all social, because there were no WW forum administrators involved unless we made some kind of appeal for breaking overall forum rules, or something).

Looking back, it was much more shared-world fan-fiction writing than real interaction role-playing as I would describe it now, but the underpinnings were solidly entrenched in the tabletop game (like, people all wrote up character sheets and tracked their character improvement over time and such, and there would be out-of-character discussions about “you’re guy couldn’t have that Edge he’s never demonstrated that he had this prerequisite” and stuff like that).

Anyway, I was an active participant for at least 2000-2004 or 2005, which spanned my last couple years of high school and my first couple in college. Like all things, the internet community there eventually fragmented, and the hard core of players ragequit the WW forums and started their own site, which never got a critical mass of new players and died off after another 6 months or so.

I have been running a few 1 GM and 1 player play-by-post games and have found them really rewarding and interesting. What did you learn from playing play-by-post?

The biggest thing I learned that’s broadly applicable to gaming in general, I think, is that that getting validation for ideas is as important as having cool ideas in the first place. There was nothing worse than spending a ton of time on an awesome post and seeing it sit there with no replies. The positive lesson for me was to find things to celebrate in others contributions, which improved everyone’s experiences.

I learned a lot about writing, actually. I’ve always been a decent writer, but getting into a character’s head and narrating in their voice was something new for me, and really helpful for me overall.
I learned a ton about internet communities, and the role of both moderation and personality in maintaining them. I feel like the patterns I experienced in that forum gave me a pretty solid framework for figuring out whether a community is going to be productive for me to join or not.
A few quotes prompted more questions:
Some folks (eventually including myself) coordinated meta-stories that involved multiple characters behind the scenes, essentially storyboarding out a scenario with all the participants via email and then having everyone post in character about it over time, kind of an unfolding world event for everyone.
That is an interesting transition, between a group of people exchanging stories and the stories beginning to link and become a shared world and a game. Could you talk a bit about that transition and your role in it?

Well, it was ongoing when I started participating. Other players would reference shared-storyline events that had happened in the last couple months (like, “Hey guys, LoneWolf7 is starting to sound like OneDeeTen110 right before he went crazy, and people died, don’t let him fool you!”). In my case, the idea of collaborating with the other players was appealing, so I started angling my guy’s storylines towards that in a narrative sense, and I think another player ended up emailing me about whether I wanted to be part of his next cross-character event or not (and I did, of course).

There was a pretty clear social hierarchy that went something like noob/fringe poster –> regular poster –> frequent poster/meta-event participant –> frequent poster/how we play authority (which was pretty much one guy, with a couple other folks who generally shared the same mindset). Once I made it to that third level, such as it was, I felt like it was my responsibility to “bring up” newer posters who were doing stuff that I liked into my storylines, so I ended up being the one reaching out a good deal.

I did one play-by-chat with Authority Guy where we used the tabletop rules for an interaction between my character and a stable of his characters, which wasn’t very fun, as it turned out. Other than that, people would share character sheets and essentially script out plot points, with the primary player having authority over what would be included and what wouldn’t.

And another quote that prompted a question:
I learned a ton about internet communities, and the role of both moderation and personality in maintaining them. I feel like the patterns I experienced in that forum gave me a pretty solid framework for figuring out whether a community is going to be productive for me to join or not.
May I ask what you look for and what you avoid?

You may!

Warning – I’m going off on a tangent, I think, but here’s the short response to your question:

A clearly-worded set of rules of behavior (A, B and C are what we’re here for, X and Y are not allowed and here’s why) is important. I need to have a metric to calibrate my contributions towards. With that, having a single person who can say “I am the arbiter of the guidelines” is usually a good sign, because then I can decide whether:

(a) I understand and am excited about what and how I should contribute or

(b) This sounds like an environment that I’ll find uncomfortable, moving on

When things are more wishy washy, I generally don’t engage very much (if at all). This is all in context of a dedicated shared-interest community with a specific “place” (forum, generally) – social media is different for me, of course.

Ok, tangent:

First, there was a strong and consistent moderation policy (phrased as “the rules of the game as played on this forum”, which was basically along these lines:

1. Canon is sacrosanct. We’re all different people with different levels of engagement with the game, so the only way to have a consistent baseline for our game is to treat the published books as the concrete guidelines for our contributions to the game. Most common no-nos: there is some force that keeps monsters from being revealed to the general public; you cannot post as a monster (because hunter-net is magically kept to be monsters-only); you can’t kill off canon characters, though referencing them in storylines is ok; no large scale world-changing events (like, hey guys I nuked NYC!)

2. You can’t mess with another players character without their permission

3. You’re posts should be in accordance with the tabletop game rules (again, no posting about abilities you’re guy wouldn’t have yet being the main no-no)

4. Strict, strict separation between in-character and out-of-character posting. IC was anything goes content-wise (theoretically), OOC was supposed to adhere to the WW forum policy (and we actually had an administrative “IC posts that violate our forum policy are ok as long as they’re clearly labeled as IC” thingy)

So, I respond well to having rules that were clear and made sense to me, with both of those things being important! But the other critical element was that there was one guy (I’ll call him Authority Guy) who basically took it upon himself to enforce the rules. 95% of the time, I agreed with him in his “rulings,” and he was also socially the biggest heavyweight, with an enormous post-count and a big stable of characters that were interacting with most of us over time.

But, towards the end, I could see that Authority Guy was more interested in maintaining his status as Authority Guy than in maintaining a healthy community with high turnover (as most forum communities are). There started to be debates about interpretations of the rules, with most of them ending up with Authority Guy essentially using appeals to canon to enforce his feelings about how people should be writing their characters. Once we started talking about how we talk to one another, it all goes downhill from there. This leads into your next question:

You wrote:
Of course, there were individuals who contributed a lot to keeping everyone on board with keeping a certain tone and style, and if you deviated too much there was a lot of flaming to be done.

Was this a constructive process?

It was super constructive as long as there was healthy turnover in the community – a steady influx of new people (who needed the structure in order to get on board with the shared vibe) to replace the veterans who left (because they got bored, job changed, they told the story they wanted, whatever).

The flaming was generally pretty limited (and we’d actually have people come on the board just to troll the whole idea of the game, which gave us a good outlet for flame-type impulses). But, as I said above, at some point the structure became a straightjacket and the community kind of split into two camps of long-standing players, one that wanted to keep playing but felt like we had too much backstory to introduce new characters and tell new stories (the “reset” camp), and one that basically wanted to keep everything the same and maintain all the current social hierarchies (Authority Guy was the head of that). That’s when we started arguing about arguing, and then the moderation policy of the WW boards changed in a way that completely undermined Authority Guy’s appeal to authority, and he led the off-site exodus.

Could you talk about a memorable, fantastic moment/character/exchange whatever in your play-by-post play?

When my long-running character, Guerrilla82, died. I narrated it from the perspective of an NPC who had looked up to him as somewhat of a father figure. I played Guerilla for 2.5-3 years at that point, and over the course of his story he’d actually lost both of his hands (one bitten off by a werewolf, one chopped off by a vampire). He’d racked up serious depression and survivor’s guilt (as Hunter characters progress, you have to give them mental problems mechanically), and had taught this cell of NPCs + one other players character everything he knew. He covered himself in explosives and bombed out a vampire-nest night club. I felt like it was suitably tragi-heroic with the appropriate edges of futility and the sense of “but what about all the normal people he did/could of hurt”, and the memorial thread brought up (IC) arguments along both of those lines. I was genuinely sad when I wrote his ending, but it felt good to bring him to a close and see all the (IC) eulogies.

Nathan, you wrote:

The biggest thing I learned that’s broadly applicable to gaming in general, I think, is that that getting validation for ideas is as important as having cool ideas in the first place. There was nothing worse than spending a ton of time on an awesome post and seeing it sit there with no replies. The positive lesson for me was to find things to celebrate in other’s contributions, which improved everyone’s experiences.

Are there game mechanics in your design that come from this realization?

I think the Claims mechanic in Annalise is all about this, where you tag something another player says as so cool to you that you want to bring it back into the game later. I mean, there are other influences on that as well, but that’s the first thing I thought of that has a clear connection!

Could you discuss any table-top techniques that you adopted after learning this?

Not consciously. As in, I don’t think I specifically started doing anything new based solely on the PbP. But, around this time I also played Primetime Adventures for the first time, and the idea of giving Fan Mail informally in other games (the finger wiggle) seems to be on the same wavelength. Generally, this was all wrapped up with a time where I was playing in some painfully dysfunctional games with acquaintances in college, and ALSO discovering independently published games and playing great weird games at conventions, so it’s hard to pick anything specific out of that whole stew.

If you were going to marry your current game design-fu to that old-school play-by-post vibe, how would you do it? Feel free to indulge in game design fantasy here or talk about a more down-to-earth idea.
Great question.
I really loved the shared-world experience, where we were all doing our own thing with ultimate control over what happened to our characters, but with common touchpoints for characters and themes. I know “metaplot” gets a bad rap from a lot of folks these days, but I feel like modern social-media platforms could provide a similar feeling entirely (or almost entirely) from widely distributed, asynchronous play in a world with a consistent foundation. What if you could send IC tweets to a bot that retweeted it in real-time, and other players could fold that content into their game as desired? Or create an IC Google+ community that captured the play-by-post feeling but provided integrated tools to break out into Hangout real-time groups? That would be cool.
The killer app that made that game work was that there was a direct fictional connection to the medium – we were playing our characters composing emails by composing forum posts. What if there was a twitter game where the fictional setup was one in which the characters were tweeting (or could only say 100 characters at a time, or something like that)? The whole weird twitter thing has already created an alternate-reality space on Twitter that could be really neat for play off of for such a thing. (I think Dev Purkayastha has a twitter-based zombie game based on this idea, actually.)
If I were to tackle such a project, I would try to create opportunities to blend the barrier between the online-posting world and the at-the-table world, so that content from one could seamlessly blend into play of the other. It would be hard! But it could be really great.
Thanks Judd!
Thank you, Nathan, for stopping by and chatting. If you have any questions, please post them in the comments here or in the conversation on Google + (link).
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s