The Framework

Copyright 2001, Michael B. Sullivan

What is The Framework?

The Framework is a meta-system for distributing player and GM authority in any roleplaying game. That is, it's not a game in and of itself. Rather, you take a game (like D&D, GURPS, or Vampire) and, instead of nominating a GM and several players, you use The Framework to determine who gets to act and in what role at any given time.

What is necessary to use The Framework?

You will need a roleplaying game that all participants are very comfortable with, and a fairly large number of tokens of some kind.
Each participant should have a viewpoint character (a "player character,") that they wish to play for the given session. Finally, the participants should come to some consensus on the general sort of game they want to play. For example, if you were playing Vampire, you might say, "A game of political manuevering in a New York threatened by imminent, full-scale Sabbat invasion."

What are the rules of The Framework?

All participants take a set number of tokens. Six is a good number for a mid-length session.
One participant (determined by whatever means you wish) gets an extra token, and is responsible for setting the stage. He describes the initial situation that the characters find themselves in, and is responsible for giving an immediate hook for something to follow. Continuing the example above, the starting participant might say, "The Prince has called together a meeting in the local Elysium. Wide rumor has it that he will address the possibility of Sabbat invasion, and praise or criticize those who he perceives as having helped or hurt the situation."

At this point, all participants who are interested in being active participants in the scene slide one token into the middle of the table. They are the protagonists of the scene. From the number of the participants who did not pay a token, one takes one of the tokens in the middle of the table. That participant is now responsible for all non-player characters (he is the de facto GM for the scene).

The spotlight is considered to be on only those participants who bid a token. All other viewpoint characters are present at the scene, but do not have its focus nor do they have control over it. The GM is responsible for wrapping the conflict of the scene around the protagonists, and the other participants are responsible for using their viewpoint characters to support the protagonists without stealing spotlight or resolving any actions. More specifically, a non-protagonist viewpoint character can not be measureably benefitted by the scene, nor can they drive the scene to conclusion.
Once the immediate conflict has been in some way resolved, the GM is responsible for tying it into a new scene, and all participants (including the old GM) again pay one token if they are interested in being the protagonists of the new scene. Again, from the non-protagonists, a GM is determined, who takes one token from the center, and action continues.
Continuing our example, suppose we have four participants, one each playing a Brujah, Gangrel, Toreador, and Nosferatu. The Brujah and Toreador bid a token to be the protagonists of the scene. The Gangrel elects to be GM for the scene, and takes a token from the middle of the table. The Gangrel says, "The Prince reaches the meeting about five minutes late, and, after a few minutes of conversation with the Toreador Primogen, calls the meeting to order. Without preamble, he says, 'You,'" The GM points at the Brujah's participant, "'Stand accused of conspiring with the Sabbat. How do you respond to these charges?'" After some time, it develops that the Toreador Primogen is accusing the Brujah due to his jealousy of the Brujah and Toreador's relationship. The two protagonists share the center stage in the trial. The Nosferatu, as a non-protagonist, interjects himself several times to offer bits of testimony that establish him as a character and complicate the situation, without resolving it or taking center-stage. Eventually, the Brujah and Toreador are released to bring a witness that they say will defend the Brujah back to the Prince, at which point the conflict has been temporarily resolved, and it's time to bid again to determine protagonists and GM.

What do you do if you're not a protagonist or the GM?

If you're neither a protagonist nor a GM, your role is to be a supporting character. Think about how supporting characters work in novels or movies, or how NPC's work in traditional roleplaying games. You may not benefit from the scene nor may you resolve it. You can work to highlight the actions of one of the protagonists, and you can potentially inspire their actions in some way, such as being a victim that they wish to rescue. You should feel free to add these complications yourself. The GM will be conscious of keeping you out of the spotlight, but you should make his job easier, not harder.
The supporting participants should tailor the activities of their characters to making the scene more interesting, and not restrict themselves to purely in-character thinking. They should find plausible in-world reasons why they can not "solve" a scene, if necessary. For example, in a combat scene, a supporting character with a high combat prowess might decide that someone shoots him from behind, or that he ends up in a different room from the protagonists, eventually returning victorious but un-focussed-on.
The supporting participants should not change the nature of the scene, such as making a fight break out in a scene which had previously been a tense negotiation. That is the province of the GM or the protagonists.
Continuing our example, in the next scene, the Brujah and the Nosferatu are the Protagonists, the Toreador is the GM, and the Gangrel is a supporting character. The Toreador and the Nosferatu are shaking down some local gang members for information, when the Gangrel decides to complicate the scene. "You!" he snarls at one of the gang members. "I saw you hanging around his hideout," gesturing at the Nosferatu. In doing so, he's kept the scene focussed on the Nosferatu and the Brujah, but asserted his presence and added to the conflict.

What do you do if you're one of the protagonists?

The protagonists should act just like players always do in a game. They're temporarily freed from having to think about larger concerns than the minute-to-minute characterization of their viewpoint characters.

What do you do if you're the GM?

The GM acts mostly as GM's usually do. He is required to tailor the scene around the protagonists, and, if necessary, keep the supporting characters in their places. He should keep an eye towards providing an interesting existing conflict and a place for the scene to go. Obviously, good improvisational skills are necessary for the GM.

What if everybody wants to be a protagonist?

Supporting characters are not necessary in any given scene, but a GM usually is. There may be certain scenes where the participants agree that no GM is necessary (for example, they may wish to spend some time interacting only with each other, and make in-character plans about what's to come). In all other cases, the participant with the lowest total number of tokens is obliged to GM if nobody else wants to. If several people are tied for the lowest number of tokens, determine who is to be GM randomly.

What if several people want to be the GM?

The participant who has the lowest number of tokens among those who want to GM has precedence. If there is a tie, determine who is to be GM randomly.

When does a "scene" end?

Scenes should propose a conflict of some kind. The scene ends when the conflict is resolved or mutated into a new form. Thus, if the scene involves breaking into the bedroom of a merchant, once the participants have gotten into the bedroom and taken what they need, the scene is over. Alternately, if they're caught and thrown in jail, then, too, the conflict has changed, and the scene is over.
Optionally, a group might allow a scene to be "held." For example, the participants might be diverted from a particular conflict, but will come back to it later. This can be useful for a GM who isn't sure how to proceed. If the scene is held, the token that the GM gets for abritrating the scene is put aside until the group gets back to the scene and resolves it.

What is the proper number of tokens to use?

The participants should feel some pressure to pick and choose the scenes in which they are protagonists, without having to agonize over each one. In general, ratio of the number of scenes to the number of tokens should be something like 3:4.

What if everyone or almost everyone is out of tokens before a logical breaking point?

Give everyone a few more tokens.

Do we need to play balanced characters in The Framework?

Possibly. The rules of The Framework are designed to balance "spotlight time." That is, regardless of the fact that you might be playing a 10 year old suburban kid without noticeable skills, the highly proficient ex-CIA assassin won't be able to upstage you if he's the supporting character and you're the protagonist.

Does there need to be a formal system "beneath" The Framework?

No. If your group is comfortable with it, you could use a freeform "system" within The Framework, and simply have the GM and the players arrive at a consensus as to what actions work and what don't. In some cases, the "GM" may really simply be "the person who's responsible for controlling most of the NPC's," without other power.

Are there possible varations on the rules?

Certainly. One thing you might try is to break the tokens up into a couple of types, each one appropriate for a different sort of scene. For example, you might have action-scene tokens, overarching-plot tokens, social-scene tokens, and miscellaneous tokens. Each GM, when setting up the conflict for the next scene, announces the type of that scene. Only appropriate type tokens can be used to pay for protagonism in that scene. The GM of the scene can take one token of any type. When you get your tokens at the beginning of the game, you can break them up into any type or combination of types. For example, if you have little interest in chatty scenes, you can take few or no social-scene tokens, and you will not be a protagonist in such scenes.
Another variation is, if you're finding that it's difficult for your group to come up with a coherent game when GM authority bounces from one person to the next, to nominate one person the "overall GM." This person is responible for setting up each scene and tying them together into a coherent whole. Rather than each scene's GM setting up the next scene, at the end of any given scene, control reverts automatically back to the overall GM, and resides there until another limited-conflict scene comes up.
You might also allow different players to have "grades" of protagonism, costing more tokens (for example, with two tokens, only you can drive the scene to conclusion, even though the people who spent one token may spend a good deal of time in the spotlight). You may also limit the total number of protagonists in any given scene.

Why the hell did you write this thing?

The Framework was unintentionally inspired by James West's fine game The Pool. The Pool includes a mechanic called the "Monolog of Victory," in which a character who has just succeeded at a die roll can, essentially, take over the role of the GM for a limited time. While the Monolog of Victory is a powerful mechanic, I realized that it worked just backwards from the way I was interested in playing. Things that I, as a player, am interested in and want to build a character around are things that I don't want GM control over. Instead, I want to remain fully within my character's skin.

Thus, the Framework, where, when you're in the spotlight, you have no GM-like power, but when you're out of it, it's your responsibility for setting the stage for other players.

The Courtyard of Philosophers