Last month I played in a version of The Scholars’ Game moderated by Jeff Miller. This ended up being a five-player game, plus Jeff wrote several entries using three different characters. It was a lot of fun, even though I found the pace too quick for my schedule. Playing under a slightly different version of the rules has given me a lot to think about regarding the best way to run The Scholars’ Game.
Jeff ran his version of The Scholars’ Game using slightly different rules. The largest change was to arrange turns according to the Phone Keypad layout. Thus, the first turn was for entries beginning “ABC”, the second for entries “DEF”, etc. At a stroke, this reduced the number of turns required, and gave the Players some choice going into each round.
Before the game began properly, each Player created a background entry for their “Scholar”. This entry also had to include several blank references to kick-start the setting creation process. Writing this entry was a great way to find a voice for my character.
On the List
Jeff also asked all Players to list their references to later letters on a single List Page. This List formed the central hub to the game. As Players wrote their ABC entry, all other references to currently unwritten entries were then added to this list. As with my rules, these new entries are intended to be for letters later in the alphabet. By having all these entries listed in the one place, it proved easier to keep track of what had been mentioned.
Players added their own items to the list after each turn. Every item on the List Page named the Player who created it, and noted the entry where it first appeared. These requirements ensured that the list was a fascinating index to the growing setting, and thus a useful reference document.
The List Page really shone in connection with Jeff’s final major change. This was the requirement in second and subsequent turns for Players to expand upon another Player’s entries. As all of the items on the List Page noted who created them, it was a simple matter to look through the list for the current letter group, and find one to expand upon.
My primary feeling from playing in Jeff’s game was the sheer speed of it. The Scholars’ Game that I ran struggled to have one entry a week, whereas Jeff’s game zipped along with multiple additions each day. Indeed, the speed proved too much for my schedule, and I had to pass on the later turns. The number of Players, and their evident enthusiasm, combined with the format created a very fast game.
The second big impression was the sheer creativity shown by the Players. The requirement to build later entries around a name created by another Player must have had an effect. Several times during the game I wanted to complain how a name I had created was misinterpreted by another Player when they expanded the name into a full description.
Yet, this was the wrong response. The dynamic of twisting a name into something fresh and new was brilliant. This kept the game surprising to the Players, and challenged us all to resolve the conflicts of a game being pulled in different directions. The gestalt narrative was greater than the sum of the Players. It was not always easy to “let go” of the items I had created, but the outcome was so much better.
The Wiki software that Jeff chose to use was less WYSIWYG than my own campaign Wiki. It worked fine in the end, but there was a new style to learn at the beginning. I do not think it had a negative impact on the game, but I was a little hesitant at first about using this new Wiki.
While there were some things that could be improved in the latest game, the Wiki software was not one of them. I have already mentioned how the game proved to be too fast for me. This is not a fault with the game, but it did show that I should have made a few more enquiries about the likely pace of the game. I had simply assumed that it would run as fast as my own Scholars’ Game, and this was a false assumption.
I think my biggest issue with playing the game was the layout of the Wiki as time went on. The List Page was excellent, but each entry should have included a “back button” to return the reader to a common point. Returning to the List Page would have been a good option, but better would have been a thematic page. So, for example, a Palace page, that listed all the Palace locations.
Yes, this would have taken more work, but the Players could have done some of it themselves. During the later rounds, the List Page had grown so big that I found it difficult to keep the setting in my head. Thus, I would need to read several pages to fit it all together, and try not to create too many contradictions with my new entry. If there had been thematic hub pages, then this would have been a lot easier.
My two small gripes are easily outweighed by the positives of playing this game. It was a hugely creative experience. Jeff is very lucky to have found a group of Players with so much enthusiasm and engagement in the process of setting creation.
And what an awesome setting we created together. I am not sure how much I really added to the process, but the outcome benefited immensely from so many contrasting voices. I would have liked to have commented on more of the entries, but the setting was so big, and my time was limited.
Jeff set us up to create a great setting by seeding the Wiki with some samples of his own creation. This effectively set the tone for the setting, and gave us all a starting point for our contributions. Jeff used three GM characters, to allow him three different voices in the setting. This is another clever tactic, and one I shall definitely be using for my next try at running The Scholars’ Game.
Overall, there are several lessons I shall be taking from Jeff when it comes to running my next Scholars’ Game. First of all I like the shorter, more flexible Keypad format, rather than the full 26 turn alphabet. This format gives more freedom and creativity to the Players. Also, it has a more freeform structure, rather than a rigid turn order.
As stated above, I shall also be seeding the background with some entries of my own to help set the tone and give the Players a loose framework of possible options. Finally, I shall make use of the List Page, and the requirement to expand upon the creations of other Players. I just hope I can achieve the same level of creativity as Jeff enjoyed.
Following an email from Jeff, he is happy to share some links with you, to help you understand the game we played:
The chance to tap into the creativity of the Players to help build setting has enormous potential for easing the prep burden on the GM and increasing the depth of the setting. I shall want to continue this trend, and a new version of The Scholars’ Game is an excellent way to begin a new campaign. I shall be adopting the lessons of Jeff’s game to help improve my next attempt.
How do you involve the Players in creating your setting? Share your experiences in the comments section below.