Interview with Christian Griffen – Chat-based play

Some of you may remember the interviews I did way back when (the ones with Sarah Kahn and Moyra Turkington). Well, that second one, the one with Mo, never got finished. What with her going of to India and all (and, I hope, having a wonderful time). Hopefully we’ll pick it up after she gets back and settles in, but we don’t know yet.

But the interviews are some of my favorite things to do around here, so I’m going to start up a new one. This time it’s Christian Griffen, one of Berengad Games, with the very interesting-looking Beast Hunters which I’m hoping to see by the end of next month.

Our nominal topic of discussion is online chat-based play. This is a very broad thing to talk about because there are dozens of ways that this sort of play is handled, and they all have something interesting to teach us.

The rules on this interview are much like they have been in the past. I ask the questions, Christian answers them, everyone else refrains from commenting. As soon as we’re done I’ll throw up a thread where the floor is open and everyone can ask Christian questions. I strongly encourage anyone who has questions during the interview that they want to see answered there to email them to me. This isn’t a case of me thinking that I’m the only one smart enough to come up with good questions. It just keeps things tidy and easy to follow.

I will be trying something new this time though. We’ll see how it goes. I’m going to start up a thread for the peanut gallery. This is a place for anyone and everyone to comment on what Christian and I are talking about. We might get involved over there in discussions, but I don’t know if we will yet. There is something to be said about letting you guys talk on your own.

Without further preamble, let’s get this party started!

1. Tell us a bit about yourself, in general. Who are you, what do you do, what’s your shoe size? You know, the important stuff.

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20 Responses to “Interview with Christian Griffen – Chat-based play”

  1. xenopulse says:

    Hi, and thanks for having me :)

    My full name is Christian Woldmann Griffen. I am German, but immigrated to the US in 2000 to be with my wonderful wife, Lisa. My middle name used to be my family name, but we picked a new last name together when we got married for Egalitarian and Feminist reasons. We’re raising three boys on the outskirts of Portland, Oregon. I currently work as a paralegal and have worked as an individual caretaker, news producer, and litigation analyst. I also was a teaching assistant for two years while earning my MA in Political Science here in Portland.

    I’ve always been a creative person with too many interests. I mostly write stories and compose songs and obviously have a great passion for playing and designing roleplaying games. I often go under the nickname “xenopulse,” because I used that pseudonym in my early “tracking” days–tracking is a way of creating songs, and if you google the name, you’ll find some old tunes of mine. You’ll also find that I enjoy posting in all sorts of places: RP fora, computer gaming sites, political blogs, etc. I help out as a moderator at Story Games as well.

    I’m a proud leftie of the Social Democratic tradition, subscribing to largely Kantian and Hegelian values (i.e., personal liberty based on duty to family, society, and humanity as a whole). I’m a pretty realistic and pragmatic guy, and yet try to remain optimistic and positive. That’s pretty tough in today’s socio-political environment. It helps that I’m very easily amused. I’m also a geek, but not a nerd.

    And my shoe size is US 9 1/2 wide. Trivia point: The only reason I can wear regular (preferably wide) shoes is that as a teenager, each of my large toes was surgically made narrower.

    Hey, you asked :)

  2. Thomas Robertson says:

    You’re right. I did ask. I won’t make that mistake again :)

    2. Tell me a bit about your table-top gaming. What have you played before, what have you played recently, what are you playing now?

  3. xenopulse says:

    I started playing table top games in 1990 with the German mainstream game, “Das Schwarze Auge” (“DSA”). I had read about RPGs in a magazine and was intrigued, so I picked up the starter box at a large department store. Once I started reading, and I understood the possibilities that lay within roleplaying games, I recruited several of my friends and ended up playing with basically the same three guys for the next 8 years. For a while we’d play several days a week, including 10-hour-sessions or even overnighters on the weekends. Sometimes we’d play every single day for a month or so. We cut back a little at age 16, when parties and social gatherings took up more time, but we still played at least once or twice a week. I GMed about 95% of that time, mostly DSA, but also MechWarrior, Robotech (yeah, we love big robots), Werewolf, and our later favorite KULT. Sometimes one of my friends would run Harnmaster or Shatterzone so that I could play a PC.

    Our group petered out shortly before I left Germany. Since then, I played in a two-year AD&D 2e campaign with a coworker of mine, which I left a few months ago because I can’t commit the amount of time needed anymore, and because of differences in play styles. The GM and main player (my coworker) in that group put a lot of effort into the verisimilitude of their self-created world, but the game sessions themselves are old-school Gamist, with frequent character death, as well as based on preconceived notions of how play should go that lower the fun value for me (no kibbitzing, party split means players leave the room, players of unconscious characters can’t participate anymore, no scene framing or purposeful pacing, etc.).

    Recently I played Dogs via the Foundry, which might or might not count as table-top play. But since you ran that game, you know all about that. :) I’ve also been playtesting Beast Hunters, which you mentioned above. That’s actually my current focus until the game is completely done, at which point I’ll try to get into some indie games here in Portland. We have a yahoo group for indie players, and I’ve met several of the people at a couple of occasions. And even though they’re not on that group, I actually met your interviewee Sarah Kahn and her household (including Matt and Jake of Panty Explosion fame, and Charles and others of the Ennead) just a couple of weeks ago. :)

    For the past almost eleven years, overall, I’ve played much more online than offline.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:

    I know you’ve played a lot more online than offline, which is one of the reasons we’re doing this, but I think knowing your tabletop background is good context for what we’ll be talking about later, so…

    3. What tabletop game, group, or session of play taught you the most about roleplaying (you should feel free to pick a couple if you want)?

  5. xenopulse says:

    That’s a tough question, since my group was mostly the same throughout my “formative” years. So all of my basic knowledge comes from those first eight years. I think that it really didn’t help that we were such a steady group, because without fresh blood, we didn’t get to see different approaches to roleplaying. We evolved, but it’s hard to put a finger on any single session there. With us playing so much, they all run together.

    I would probably say that in recent years, the AD&D group taught me a lot because I started reading the GNS articles soon after I began playing with those guys, and so I was able to analyze the group dynamics, reward cycle, and all that. I had a thread exchange with Ron (Edwards) about that group, and that was highly insightful for me. Due to using the group I was actually in as an example, I suddenly understood distinctions on different levels of the Big Model. That’s one reason I fully support the call for actual play examples when discussing theory. It just worked wonders for me.

  6. Thomas Robertson says:

    Yeah, actual play is where it’s at. Which is actually a good set up for the next question.

    4. What is your most powerful table-top roleplaying memory, what was so good (or bad) about it?

  7. xenopulse says:

    My long-time group was what I refer to as “unreflected.” We didn’t think much about the process of playing, what we wanted to get out of it, etc. So we were playing “without a specifically determined purpose.” Of course we had all kinds of general purposes, like “have fun,” but we mostly played based on preconceived and organically grown notions of how play should go.

    Therefore, we didn’t really achieve the focus necessary to have super-powerful thematic moments, for example. We had fun battles, cool character moments, funny anecdotes, etc., but true heart-touching power rarely came up. Also, they wanted to run light-hearted adventure stuff for the most part, and as I said, I was almost always GMing and tried to cater to those wishes.

    So we had scenes where heroic characters were tempted by power and actually sold their souls to a demon lord and things like that, but the players were never much involved, personally. They didn’t want to be.

    Due to this dynamic, I have to say that the most powerful table top moment was actually a mood-immersive one. That’s the one that touched us all the most. We were playing KULT overnight. I set up the real-world situation to be as moody as possible: candle light, barely-audible creepy music, sleep deprivation, etc. Then, in-game, I pulled out all the stops and used details, cliches, whispers, sudden outbursts of screaming, and finally a situation in which they realized that the big unknown evil was right there in the room with them. Everybody got goosebumps and people’s hearts actually skipped a beat.

    That’s the most I’ve ever touched the actual feelings of my players in a table top environment. My own being-powerfully-touched moments only came about in freeform play, because I could finally actually play single characters :)

  8. Thomas Robertson says:

    So with all that as context, let’s move on to some questions closer to our nominal topic.

    5. Tell me a bit about your online gaming history. What sorts of things have you played in the past, recently, and what are you playing right now?

  9. xenopulse says:

    I started going online at the end of 1995 and created my first real \”freeform\” character on January 10, 1996. Because CompuServe offered the best deal at the time (the Superplan), I went with them and soon found the RPGAMES forum. They had several chat rooms, two of which were used to roleplay: the Tavern and the Arena.

    If you want to understand how that works, imagine this: You wander into a place that has several hundred active players (a couple dozen of which are online at the same time). Creating a character is as easy as changing your online nick to a character name. Play is then done by entering one of the two RP chat rooms and posting your character\’s actions and words there. Most of the play consists of interactions with the other characters. Each player has complete ownership over their characters, i.e., you get to decide not only what your character says and does, but also what affects them.

    I played in that forum until it shut down, at which point the core group of players migrated from one forum to the next, including games site, funonline, adultrpg, and others. Finally CompuServe closed its fora. Some of the core players have opened up their own sites, such as rp-refugees.net, but most scattered elsewhere.

    In the meantime I played via IRC as well as on MUDs and MUSHes. Nowadays I sometimes play on myrealms.net, which is a little more structured.

    I assume that\’s what you mean by \”things\” — if you mean what sort of games, these so-called freeform games are either direct PC interaction scenes or GMed scenes, done either spontaneously or organized (e.g., in guilds). I\’ve played in uncountable spontaneous games and many structured ones, and have run several games of my own. The last one I ran was an alternate ancient egypt game, for example, for which I required character sheets that were basically a big group of flags and relationships. I would run NPCs and the external world and describe reactions to the PCs and adjudicate conflicts based on player input.

  10. Thomas Robertson says:

    Yeah, good interpretation of my vague question. I’ll try not to let that happen again. I’m sure you’re noticing a parallel in these questions

    6. Which online game experience taught you the most about roleplaying, and which one taught you the most about yourself?

  11. xenopulse says:

    Sorry for the delay–not only was I terribly busy (and sick), but this question turned out to be really hard, and I didn’t have a clear answer until now. I realized that’s because I learn in two main ways: I grasp concepts and then build up experience over a long period of time. Just like I understood most of the possibilities of role playing after reading the introduction and example of play for DSA for the very first time, entering the online fora and playing once or twice exploded the basic understanding in my head. And then it’s not a single event, but just keeping on playing that expands it.

    So basically, as soon as I realized the concept of how it all worked, I learned an intense amount about both chat play and roleplaying in general. I understood that it’s all about accepting other people’s contributions, that there’s no one way to divide authority, and that social connections are vitally important.

    But I do want to give you an example of how I learned how much trust is involved in playing with other people, which really stood out to me. See, in the fora, people were forming guilds. They were associations of characters that came in different flavors. Some of them accepted any character who was of a certain alignment, while others were actually elitist groups of players into which you were only invited if your play style impressed one of the members (mainly based on writing and social ability). They also provided plots for the players, as guilds would war against one another. However, as the damage characters take are all up to the players of those characters, there really is no way to win such a war.

    Now, one of the players was so competitive, he absolutely wanted to win. So he created a new account for the forum and pretended to be a different player. Unfortunately, he also pretended to be a girl to give himself better cover (and maybe to gain advantages with the male players in the guild). He infiltrated the opposing guild and began to rise in the ranks within by manipulating the players and faking friendships. He also brought several of his old guild mates in under the guise of new accounts. Soon, he was in a position to dissolve the guild and “win.”

    However, during this infiltration, he became friends with other female players. A couple of them confided in him, believing him to be a fellow girl who’d understand what they were going through. Intimate details about very personal, very touchy subjects were exchanged. Someone even told him about sexual harassment or worse–I don’t know the details.

    What I do know is that he was now in a rough spot. I knew he was because in the very beginning, Lisa and I recognized his writing style and I asked him a trick question in private to which only he’d know a certain answer. So I knew about his identity, though up until the end I didn’t know how badly he was getting under people’s skin. Once I learned that, I told him he’d have to come clean, and that we wouldn’t stand by and let him do that to people anymore. In the end he just cowardly disappeared, leaving behind a lot of hurt people and broken trust.

    There are a lot of lessons I learned from that event, about trust among players, the limits of competition in roleplaying, etc.

    As to the second part of the question, I don’t know if I can point to a singular event that taught me about myself. Playing with Lisa definitely made me explore myself, and we learned a lot together about ourselves and each other.

  12. Thomas Robertson says:

    That’s pretty dang cool. I think that the trust issue is one that may be easier to pick up in online play where people tend to be somewhat shielded from the consequences of their actions.

    7. What is your most powerful online gaming memory?

  13. xenopulse says:

    I had plenty of very powerful gaming moments with Lisa, but most of them are private. Therefore, let me share with you the most powerful public moment I’ve had.
    First, let me point out that freeform players take their inspiration and guidance from several different places. There are the fanfic people that Sarah spoke of. Then there are players who make up all of their own stuff. And finally, people will use an existing roleplaying game as inspiration, either purely for setting purposes, or even taking into account how things would have most likely turned out using the mechanics of that game. And there are quite a few people who play freeform in the World of Darkness.
    So, a little while after I started playing, my friend Sean suggested that we should create WoD characters so that we could play with some of the other players in the forum who were using it as their setting. Actually, some people were having game sessions at certain times in which a quasi-GM provided the location and mood (describing, for example, a seedy underworld bar full of secret supernatural creatures) and anyone whose character fit into that mood could freely play.
    I didn’t own a single WoD book at the time, but people on the internet were discussing the games and providing self-made expansions. One of them was for werecats, which apparently mostly made it into the actual Bastet book, which I bought later. So I made my character based on that material alone, and we scoured online resources to figure out how the world worked (“What the heck is a Gauntlet?!”).
    My character was a metis (born of two werecreatues, therefore sterile and socially looked down on) Bubasti (Egyptian werecat) who was down on his luck. He had been sent to the States to find the heart of an Egyptian vampire, an enemy of his people who’d sent his heart away to some secret vault so that he’d be that much harder to kill. But BurningGaze, my character, lost his partner to a werewolf and broke down. He was using drugs, picking fights, and sleeping around (which is not actually that untypical for werecats).
    There was already a sept of Garou (werewolves) in the forum, consisting of maybe a dozen or so players. Their leader had a human mate, who happened to be a mage. Long story short, BurningGaze began an affair with her. You need to remember here that due to the nature of these chat games, many things are played out in private. No other player actually knew that this was going on.
    This is where things began to become complicated. BurningGaze developed feelings for her, but more than anything he felt protective of her. The werecats were messing with the werewolves, there were vampires involved and shady deals behind closed doors, old and new rivalries springing up.
    It all culminated in a huge confrontation. I’m talking thirty players, raging Garou, vampires, even a Mokole. Due to circumstances beyond BurningGaze’s control, he ended up in the middle of it, with his best friend (Sean’s character) dead at his feet, realizing that the mage had played him. At the same time, I realized why he had fallen for her so hard—she was pregnant, and as someone who grew up being sterile and without a family, he had fixated on protecting her unborn child. Also, he had failed at his mission, so he had taken up a new one to prove himself. I really hadn’t thought about all that, and his motivations and all of his actions suddenly made sense. However, in that moment, I also felt the betrayal, his despair, the realization that the mage had actually woven a spell on him and would continue using him. So he shot himself.
    I was stunned. I didn’t want him to die. Heck, I had just really figured out who he was. But it happened, and I had to take a break from playing for a while.
    I can’t quite explain the powerful impact that the fate of a character you’ve been playing every day with dozens of people can have on you. Players who immerse themselves probably know that intensity. I felt like he was a part of me, I had shared and created and lived through his story, and now he was gone—but in a move that was a powerful statement in itself (and actually changed my stance on suicide).

  14. Thomas Robertson says:

    That’s a pretty cool (not to mention affecting) instance of play right there.

    8. What memory or experience with online gaming is the one you would use to explain why this is a cool thing to do to other people who haven’t seen it for themselves (assuming you wouldn’t use the one you have above)?

  15. xenopulse says:

    You know, that really depends on what the person I’m talking to is interested in. There are great examples of play, such as the one above. Then there are examples of friendships and relationships forming through play. So depending on what you’re looking for in your gaming, the answer would differ.

    Let’s talk about a very early example of play, though. I had a character by the name of Sefest. He had a friend that he cared about a lot, called Vallar. Sefest was a goody-two-shoes; friendly, loyal, and naive to a fault. Vallar, on the other hand, was a bit of a troublemaker.

    She started hanging out with the wrong people, such as Lanteres, a really despicable (and brilliantly played) fellow. But most of that happened outside my purview. She did start to act strangely, though. And one day, I logged on to find her in the middle of a fight with a bunch of guys from a “good” guild. Naturally, Sefest jumped in to defend his friend. He covered her flank so that she could isolate the leader, also a supposed friend of hers, supposedly to talk it out. While Sefest was providing cover, the leader put down his weapons and expressed his trust in her. So did my character by shielding her. And then she ran the guy through with her spear.

    It turned out that she had slowly been drawn to the “dark side,” so to speak, by those other characters she had hung around with. But because neither I nor the leader’s player had been around for that, we didn’t expect it. Of course, Sefest was shocked (and so was I, to a certain degree), and had some serious guilt about protecting his friend so she could kill his other friend. Again, the impact is hard to describe when you’re not personally invested in the character and the relationships at hand.

    One of the things to note is that it’s much easier to empathize with your character and get into his or her head when your knowledge is as limited as the character’s.

    Another point is this: one of the coolest things about these online places is that you have so many players with different characters that it creates an organic environment in which things always happen, and many of out of sight of most of the other players. I assume the same happens in LARPs, but in this case, the place is always there and consistently changing, without any guidance or much GMing.

    Finally, it’s a different experience because it’s much more of a collaborative writing environment. People focus a lot on description and well-worded narration, and that can be very rewarding in a way that you won’t find in offline play.

  16. Thomas Robertson says:

    The focus on presentation is an interesting one.

    9. Can you provide a brief run-down of the various sorts of play from a technical standpoint (such as IM, MU*, forum, etc.) you’ve been involved in, and how each is different?

  17. xenopulse says:

    Sure.

    First, there’s forum play. I call it such because chatting used to be mainly reserved for CompuServe fora, AOL zones, and so on. Nowadays you just have web sites with chat interfaces. Even back in the day, there were almost always additional functions included in the forum, such as message boards and file libraries, but they were aside from and not integral to the chat.

    Pure forum play uses only a chat interface. Many people play on IRC this way as well (though IRC rooms with bots and dice rollers are a different matter). This absence of any other software has two major impacts: all conflicts are resolved through complete character ownership and negotiation, and there is no diffusion of the roleplaying activities and social networking.

    Second, we have places with assisting software. These range from chat sites or IRC rooms with dice rolling software to complex MUSHes. A MUSH is basically a server-run chat environment in which you can create objects and chat rooms, add descriptions, code programs, and much more.

    These assisted environments can have one or both of the following things that set them apart from forum play: 1) conflict resolution or at least guidance software such as dice rollers; and 2) activities other than roleplaying that are socially rewarded by the community. Therefore, the difference to forum play that stems purely from the technical implementation is very noticeable in the activities people focus on and the way they resolve inter-character conflicts.

    Third, there are MUDs and MMORPGs. The main difference between MUDS and MMORPGs is that MUDs are text-based whereas MMORPGs have a graphical interface. Both of these are heavily equipped with software, but the real distinction to MUSHes I see is that you have actual in-game gains from activities other than roleplaying. “Grinding,” or killing monsters for experience points, is the most well-known of those, but trading and crafting count as well. These are not just socially rewarded, they have actual in-game consequences. And gaining in-game influence (raising your Ranger to level 60) then has an impact on your social abilities because you have something to offer to people who spent less time on these activities.

    So, the technical interface matters a LOT for the kind of play you’ll get. If you introduce a dice roller to a pure chat environment (along with either social pressure or official rules about their use), you’re changing the very basic distribution of authority. If you introduce the ability to create objects or character pages, you create activities other than roleplaying that will take up the players’ time. This is even more pronounced when you base character “power” on in-game activities that are not roleplaying, as is the case in MMORPGs.

    None of these steps are “bad,” they just further different activities. As an example, I sometimes play on a site called Mystical Realms (www.myrealms.net). They have integrated dice rollers as well as “chambers,” which are character info pages that are linked to your screen name when you’re in the chat interface. The dice are more guidance than determinators, because they only tell you if your opponent was successful or not, not what the effect of success is (so how badly your character gets hurt from a successful attack is still up to you, though it’s expected that you scale it in accordance with the skill level and rating of the die roll of your opponent). At the same time, the chambers provide an activity that takes up people’s time. There are players who spend more time polishing their chambers than roleplaying, and they have big discussions and even official competitions for the best-looking chambers. That both diffuses the time you spend roleplaying and attracts and retains a different kind of player than pure chat play.

    Note that I’m not saying that that’s a bad thing. Many people enjoy roleplaying more if they have dice to fall back on, and if they have chambers of characters to look at. It adds something to their game, and for them it’s worth the investment in time that might come off their playing time.

    Those are the main technical differences I see. I haven’t talked about IM play, mainly because that’s a bit of a different beast because it doesn’t include its own community but rather gets set up by people who meet in other venues.

  18. Thomas Robertson says:

    I find the specialized use of the term ‘forum’ play to be extremely interesting here.

    10. All of the above stuff you talked about seems to be mostly
    synchronous play. Do you have much experience with asynchronous play? If so, what are the main differences you see, and if not what is it that you feel is lacking in asynchronous play?

  19. xenopulse says:

    Just to make sure people know what we’re talking about: Synchronous play is when both players play at the same time, for example, they’re communicating back and forth at the same time via a chat interface, or skype, or at a regular gaming table. Asynchronous play is when they send their communications at different times, for example, one person posts on a message board in the morning and the other player reads and responds at night. (At least that’s how I use the terms–correct me if that’s not your usage.)

    I’ve played both, but much prefer synchronous play. The basic issue with asynchronous play is that it is just so goddamn slow. Playing a single scene can take weeks, especially when more than two players are involved.

    Online gaming is already very slow. In a chat interface, it’s maybe 20% as fast as face-to-face play, and that’s when everyone’s focused on what they’re doing. Often people might be surfing the web, or chatting, or doing something else at the same time. But play-by-post or play-by-email are even slower, and that’s a pace I can’t keep up with. As you’ll notice during this interview, sometimes I can’t post for a couple days, on other days I can make four or five posts. If the players in asynchronous play don’t have compatible schedules, it usually falls apart before you get very far.

    That’s the main issue. It’s also less personal, because you can’t simultaneously talk ooc with the other players while you’re playing. It’s tough to keep up a mood over the course of weeks. You forget things that happened and have to read old posts before you take your turn, further slowing things down. And so on.

  20. Thomas Robertson says:

    Yeah, that’s precisely what I meant by synchronous.

    11. In your answer to #9 you briefly mentioned a difference between IM play and the other stuff you were talking about. Since IM play isn’t situated within a fixed community, how do people get involved in it? Is it passed from person to person as an oral tradition, or does it tend to grow up as supplementary to existing networks of play?

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