Johnstoning - Collaborative Campaign Creation

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"Johnstoning" is named for Keith Johnstone, author of Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre

“Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” — Keith Johnstone

We are most engaged with and invested in the products which we create for ourselves: a meal, a house, a job, a story. Good role-playing game campaigns require "buy-in" from both players and referee; so why not allow the group to cooperatively determine details of the imaginary world they will inhabit, so that everyone has a stake in the stories to be told?

Presumably, the players have some agreement about the sort of game they want to play — a pulp-style science-fiction game of interstellar merchants, or a dark, horrific tale of vampires lurking beneath the city. Many groups, or their referees, come up with that initial kernel of an idea. But how to develop the concept so that everyone feels included and involved?

“Johnstoning” is an improvisational content-building activity performed in rounds. Each round is devoted to some specific aspect of the campaign: the physical layout of the mages’ college, or the technological capabilities of the Arcturan Federation, or the international players and relations of the Boreosyrtan League. Decide on a certain set of topics to cover before you begin; you can always add more, later, if the group wants to explore an area in more detail.


Beginning a Round: Assertions

Each player draws a card from a standard deck to set the order of play for the first phase of the round. If you don’t mind a bit of anarchy, you can forgo the cards and let people chime in as they like, but providing a bit of structure encourages shy or slower-spoken players to take just as active a hand as their more effusive colleagues. The cards establish a precedence as in poker: aces high, followed by face cards and then numerals, with ties settled by faces in the priority (reverse alphabetical) of spades, hearts, diamonds, then clubs.

The initial high-card holder makes the assertion for this phase: a definite, bold statement related to the topic for the round. For the layout of a school campus, a good assertion might be, “The school is located on a remote mountaintop.” For the technology of a space-opera setting, it might be, “Our star-drive instantaneously teleports a ship from its origin to its destination.”

An assertion should be a single sentence without much detail; the other players need a chance to expand on the idea! Avoid being either overly mild or overly detailed; offer something exciting and interesting, but leave room for others to develop the idea. So “Our city is a commercial center” is boring (aren’t all cities such?) but “Our city hosts the world’s premiere robotics firm, which has been working on developing a cyborg soldier, so that they can take over the world” is much too specific. Just “Our city is home to the world’s premiere robotics firm” offers a good start, and lets others offer their own spin on the idea.

“Yes, And...” or “Yes, But...”

In the order dictated by their cards, the other players chime in with extensions (“Yes, and...”) or limitations (“Yes, but...”) to the assertion. Their contributions must be relevant to the assertion: if the initial player has asserted that “The professor of necromancy is a vampire,” the next player in the phase can’t suddenly begin talking about the campus stables! A reasonable extension might be, “Yes, and... everyone knows about her condition,” or “Yes, and... students pay their class tuition in blood”; a limitation might be, “Yes, but... he’s always kept magically confined in a cellar room where he holds his classes.”

Extensions and limitations can modify previous contributions in the phase but, since every statement starts with “Yes,” they cannot contradict previous statements: “Yes, but... the faculty lets him out once a year on Samhain Eve” is a perfectly legitimate limitation to the existing limitation on our vampiric professor!

An important rule in improvisation is, “Don’t try to be clever.” In other words, don’t try too hard; contributions should create open-ended stories, not provide lavish but limiting details. The concern is not so much to create descriptions (“A demon worshipper who serves Azazel, and has a hidden third eye, and lives in a big tower made of bones....”) as to build relations (“a demon worshipper who loves a girl in the village where he grew up, but doesn’t want her to know what he’s become”). Some of the most interesting stories are made of mundane details, not elaborate fancies. Samwise Gamgee considered using the One Ring to be a better gardener; Hercules worked at clearing out stables; Dracula came into London by ship. Good science fiction, and good fantasy, consists of a limited number of oddities which create their own details, not a tottering tower of strangeness piled upon strangeness.

Also remember that the goal is to spur exciting stories, not to make life cushy for the characters! If the party’s base of operations becomes an idyllic Shangri-La with full coffers and friendly neighbors, there’s little reason for adventure. Good stories are made of conflict: “Yes, but...” is just as important as (if not more important than) “Yes, and....”

When each player, in descending card order, has offered an extension or limitation, the player who made the assertion can offer a final contribution of “Yes, and...” or “Yes, but...” Bringing up the rear gives her an opportunity to steer the concept back toward whatever she might have intended in the first place, or into a new direction she’s envisioned after everyone else’s participation. It was her idea in the first place; now she gets to put the final stamp on it. Again, she cannot contradict what has been established, but may amplify upon it.

“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really ‘obvious’ idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever.
“[When asked] ‘What’s for supper?’ a bad improviser will desperately try to think up something original.... He’ll finally drag up some idea like ‘fried mermaid’. If he’d just said ‘fish’ the audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears.
“An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts.”
— Keith Johnstone, Impro for Storytellers

Subsequent Phases in a Round

Once every player has made a statement about the assertion, it’s time for the next phase of the round. The holder of the lowest-ranked card (assuming he hasn’t already made an assertion in an earlier round) makes a new assertion which is related to the topic of the round and does not contradict previous material.

The other players draw new cards and proceed in the order indicated. Contributions can refer back to previous phases or even previous rounds — “Yes, and... the harbor district is dominated by that crime lord we talked about earlier” — but must remain relevant to the topic at hand.

After each player has made an assertion about the round’s topic — that is, after a number of phases equal to the number of players — the round is over. A new round can begin, devoted to the next topic, or perhaps the improvisation is over, after creating enough details for the campaign background. Make sure someone is writing everything down!

Saying “No”: Vetoes and Discussion

Each player holds a single veto, which may be used only once in a round. A player doesn’t need to use his veto; it only exists to forestall something so objectionable that the player absolutely does not want it as part of the campaign world. It’s always far better to shade a contribution in your preferred direction with an extension or a limitation, but the veto exists in case you absolutely can’t see a way to make someone else’s idea work for you.

A veto can be applied to an initial assertion, or to any extension or limitation. When a player announces her veto, the interrupted player then has a chance to replace his contribution with another, which obviously must provide a different detail; you cannot replace the assertion “Laser weapons are common in the Empire” with the nearly identical “People in the Empire use laser weapons.”

If you don’t like lasers, note that you could avoid using the veto, and instead claim, “Yes, but... the lasers are slow-firing and cumbersome, so railguns are also popular for many uses.” Of course, the asserter might complain that you’ve subverted the entire purpose of the assertion (to establish plentiful laser weapons) — and might even feel tempted to veto your limitation!

It’s okay to stop and talk about your desires or your purpose in offering an assertion, an extension, or a limitation; this is a cooperative rather than a competitive game, and there’s no point in playing if it isn’t fun. If you find yourself unable to reach a resolution, you can try a majority vote of all the players. But even if you end up setting aside the improvisation entirely for a while to talk out some details of the campaign setting, that’s perfectly fine! The entire goal, after all, is to create a campaign setting that meets everyone’s needs and desires, and any means that lead to that end are a legitimate way to play the game.

Vetoes are not intended to be used competitively, or to stifle someone else’s ideas, only to give a player a rarely used brake if she simply can’t abide an idea. Once a player has used a veto, he does not receive another until the next round (i.e. after everyone has made an assertion on the topic).

Assertions During Character Generation

Daring groups could use “Johnstoning” as part of character creation, if the players are willing to give up exclusive control and roll with whatever emerges from their friends’ imaginations. Each player makes a single assertion about her character, such as “Lady Ellenfant is a noted London socialite,” to be modified by a single phase of contributions like “Yes, but... she's a secret absinthe addict,” or “Yes, and... her late husband was once the prime minister.” Obviously, the character’s player retains the usual single veto, in case of an unbearable suggestion. Such cooperative brainstorming can also be a great way to build connections between the disparate PCs!

Making Assertions During Play

Improvisation can even continue once the campaign has begun. Give each player an “assertion token.” At any time, a player can play her token and make an assertion: “My character knows a merchant in this town who might have a spot available in a caravan.” Roll a die to determine whether play proceeds to the left or the right; each player around the table then has a chance to contribute a single extension (“Yes, and... he's a slaver who always has a need for guards.”) or limitation (“Yes, but... you still owe her big-time from a screw-up the last time you met.”).

Note that it’s much more fun to introduce complications to the story, rather than just a constant litany of “Yes, and... he really likes you” or “Yes, and... he's really free with his money.” Don’t just include details that will benefit your character, or give your character time in the spotlight; consider what makes the story more exciting, or brings out neglected skills, equipment, or abilities. Note that the referee also gets to contribute a detail — and is the only one who possesses a (single) veto.

Once a player has used her assertion token, it’s gone until all the other players have used theirs. To avoid too-casual use of this narrative power, a referee might want to assess a minor cost to making an assertion, such as using an action point in D&D 4e or a benny in Savage Worlds.

Appendix: Examples of Play

Tom, Dave, and Susan are playing a cyberpunk campaign. They've decided on three rounds: one for the physical layout of their urban sprawl, another for its famous personalities, and a third for threats to the status quo.

For round 1, the topic is physical layout and infrastructure. Tom draws the first high card, and Dave the low one.

  • Tom: “Our city has a commercial spaceport.” [Note that Tom could have offered a bit more detail, but instead he leaves his idea ‘open’.]
  • Susan: “Yes, and... it’s one of only a few in the world.”
  • Dave: “Yes, but... it’s located on an offshore platform, not in the middle of the sprawl.”
  • Tom: “Yes, and... it offers flights to orbit and to the moon.”

Dave, after going last this phase, gets to make the next assertion; Susan draws the highest card.

  • Dave: “The city has a bunch of canyons, like Los Angeles."
  • Susan: “Yes, but... they're used for garbage dumping.”
  • Dave: “Veto!” [Dave wants his canyons more pristine.]
  • Susan: “Okay. Yes, but... a lot of homeless live in them.” [This still denies Dave his pristine canyons. He could stop the game to talk with Susan about the issue, but decides to roll with the idea and see what happens.]
  • Tom: “Yes, and... the folks in the hillside mansions rely on the regular flash floods to clear the homeless out.”
  • Dave: “Yes, and... some of the canyons are still maintained as nature preserves.”

Tom and Dave have both made assertions: now it's Susan’s turn. Tom’s card beats Dave’s.

  • Susan: “There's a maglev train that connects downtown with the suburbs.”
  • Tom: “Yes, but... organized crime charges a toll on some routes.”
  • Dave: “Yes, but... only from the poorer neighborhoods, since the rich won't stand for it.”
  • Susan: “Yes, and... it breaks down a lot on the poorer routes.”

Time for round 2, on local personalities. Tom draws the high card again, followed by Dave and Susan.

  • Tom: “The mayor is an advocate for cyborg rights.”
  • Dave: “Yes, but... he’s opposed by the city council.”
  • Susan: “Yes, and... it’s because he has a lot of stock in robotics corporations.” [Note that this could also have been a “Yes, but....” That’s okay; what’s important is the added detail.]
  • Tom: “Yes, and... his daughter has artificial legs because of an auto accident when she was a child.”

Susan gets to offer the next assertion. Dave draws the high card, Tom the low.

  • Susan: “A famous rock band makes its home in the city."
  • Dave: “Yes, and... their drummer is a cyborg who appears frequently with the mayor.”
  • Tom: “Yes, but... he's a total jerk who hurts the cause as much as he helps it.”
  • Susan: “Yes, and... he’s going out with the mayor’s daughter.”

Tom’s already made an assertion, so Dave leads off the final phase. Tom does get the high card, though.

  • Dave: “The manager of the spaceport runs it for a Brazilian conglomerate.”
  • Tom: “Yes, and... he only allows civilian traffic; the military has its own bases.”
  • Susan: “Yes, and... he’s connected to organized crime, smuggling drugs through the ballistic shuttles.”
  • Dave: “Yes, and... he’s opposed to hiring cyborgs to work in the spaceport.”

Round 3 would cover threats and adventure possibilities; but it sounds like Tom, Dave, and Susan already have a lot to work with for their new campaign! I hope your group meets with similar success in collaboration and creativity.

About the Author

Joseph Lockett is a gamer, actor, and theatrical director who lives in Houston, Texas.