Encultured Systems

Imagine for a moment that you are playing poker. After the round it’s revealed that you have the high hand with two pair when all of a sudden the guy across from you says, “Ah! I’ve got the Ace of Diamonds!” and collects all the cards on the table and places them in front of himself. Just to make it a little weirder he doesn’t even stop you from taking your winnings. You might rightfully ask, “What are you doing?” To which he replies, “I always like to take tricks in my card games.” You might then carefully go over the rules of poker and this individual smiles and nods and says, “Yes, I understand that you won the hand, I just find that trick taking really enhances card games.”

You would assume, I hope, that the person you were talking to was insane. So, why, I ask, do we as role-players not blink an eye when a fellow role-player says something like, “When I GM I usually have the players submit a detailed character write up for approval. I generally like at least two pages.” without any context as to what is being played? Role-playing games are the only games I can think of where players carry around with them huge systemic behaviors from game to game. The GM who *always* has his players submit detailed character write ups for approval is going to have a hard time with “In A Wicked Age…” in a shocking way and will probably be confused on a profoundly disappointing level with something more subtle like “Sorcerer.”

These encultured systems have their roots in the very dawn of the hobby where play was a highly individualized amalgam of rule-books, magazine articles and house rules. It probably reached the height of formalization with games like Vampire where rules to “do stuff” were provided but to what end, what emphasis and under what structure were *intentionally* left “up to the individual group.” Play groups *had* to develop individualized systemic techniques to make functional play happen at all. These personally developed techniques then got carried around from game to game as a matter of course often unacknowledged. Sometimes players would go so far as to claim these techniques were how the game was “supposed” to be played despite the total lack of (unified) textual backing.

Now some of you might be thinking, “Isn’t this just System Matters all over again?” or maybe the idea of purposeful design? Yes, yes it is. Then why bring it up? Because the community has forgotten. I see people carrying around Kickers, Bangs, Relationship Maps, Scene Framing and Stakes just likes Detailed Character Backgrounds, The Party, Faction Maps and Rule Zero got carried around. “Say Yes, or roll the dice” has become encultured as a particularly poisonous mantra. This has lead to the idea of “Forge-style” or “Story Game style” games. People aren’t playing the game at hand; they’re playing some weird amalgamation of every game they have ever played.

However just like it was toxic to bring all your Vampire techniques into Sorcerer it’s equally as toxic to bring all that “Story Game” stuff as some kind of unified play-style into other games. How many people know that The Producer always frames scenes in Primetime Adventures? Don’t believe me? Look it up. How many people know that there’s a perfectly functional and more basic way to play Sorcerer without a Relationship Map? Read Chapter 4 carefully. Look at how people’s ideas of Stakes has lead to mass confusion on how to play “In A Wicked Age…” and yet the text is rather clear on what to procedurally do.

To address this I offer two pieces of advice. To designers, I say consider what systemic (social and mechanical) techniques are required and/or work in your game and say that in the text explicitly. Don’t hand wave it away as, “It’s a story game. People know how to play those.” To players, I say read the text. Do what the text says. Don’t drag encultured rules into play. Stop taking tricks in your “card games.”

8 Responses to “Encultured Systems”

  1. As a player (and theorist) this is my stance: I have this toolbox full of techniques. I want to roleplay. I have a default style of play with default techniques that are used, or I can deliberately try another style, which necessiates selecting a different patch of techniques.

    Usually, I fundamentally don’t care about what some game says about the way I should play. If playing a published game it is likely that I will use a bunch of techniques close to those assumed by the game, but I do it because usually those techniques are likely to bring good result with the game.

    It is a strength of roleplaying games that it is easy to take good ideas from one game and apply them to another one, IMO. Saying that this is in some way misguided sounds alien.

    I do make a point of describing the techniques I plan to use. This issue is very central right now as I am about to run Burning Wheel for a group of players, one of whom has never played roleplaying games before (and one or two others will have their horizons significantly widened when it comes to “how roleplaying works”).

  2. I think it’s worth saying that mixing and matching techniques done consciously and with analytical forethought is not necessarily a bad thing. My problem is when people use their “toolkit” all the time without considering whether those tools will work with the game at hand. Again, I point to people trying to finagle Stakes into “In A Wicked Age…”

  3. Okay, that is a problem, especially when these assumptions are not public.

    (Experimenting and mixing random techniques and games is still fair play, as long as everyone knows it is going on, IMO.)

  4. brandrobins Says:

    Everything you say is true, and I agree with most of it fully.

    However, I also think its worth taking a minute to think about why these patterns develop.

    Obviously we’re dealing with paradigm thinking here, what can equally be termed “enculturated thinking.” Humans pretty much all build mental models in order to be able to make sense of and interact with the world, thats Philosophy 101 stuff, right?

    That kind of pattern making becomes even more acute when dealing with highly symbolic, conceptual, or abstract systems. At that point about the only way to make sense of things is to create a mental model, much of it based on past experience and ongoing interaction. (And how adaptable and stable the model will be is based very much on the gap between experience and ongoing interaction — like I was talking about with John Harper in the discussion about how we learn to play Dogs.)

    Now, RPGs aren’t an easy thing to do. I mean, sure they are on one level, but on another they’re really a highly complex structure of social, imaginative, creative, and rules based interactions. (Basic Big Model, right?) Learning how to navigate that terrain and make a fun and repeatable experience from it is no small feat, and requires a lot of energy and adaptation from our monkey brains. Figuring out how to work you, me, how you create, how I create, what you create, what I create, how the rules work, and all the rest is a fucking amazing thing, and sometimes I’m shocked at how awesome human beings are from the basic fact that we can make that shit work at all.

    That its a difficult and amazing thing I could probably just leave as stated, but I’ll offer up one more piece of evidence — blogs like this one, or mine, or the Forge, or whatever. The fact that folks like you and I spend so much fucking time trying to nail down what we do and why and how it works and why and all that shows that the process isn’t simple. Playing passionately isn’t something transparent, easy, or something folks can do repeatably, comfortably, and stably at the drop of a hat, or there wouldn’t be a point in you spending so much time writing excellent stuff about it.

    Historically the way folks have dealt with this is, obviously, building paradigms and mental models of “this is what roleplay is.” And when something comes up against that mental model, it can get dealt with by being rejected (“that’s not roleplaying — it doesn’t fit with how I understand that model to work”), adapted (“hey, I had chocolate and milk, now I have chocloate milk”), or interacted with ongoing to try to understand it as a new model (“Shit Ron, how do I play Sorcerer? I have to figure this shit out, and its taken me years, but now I get it an can write a blog about it”).

    Now, many games have systems that make one or the other of those easier. Many trad RPGs are, to one degree or another, about making the first or second modes easier. Many early indie RPGs are supposed to make the third mode easier, and a few had elements easily adapted to the second.

    The thing about the third mode is that its hard, and requires ongoing work, openness, and receptiveness to change. That’s not easy. So in the story games community, folks over time stopped so much doing the third thing (not that all of them did it all the time anyway, but a few did) and started doing more of the first and second. Part of this is from sheer burnout, part of it is because they found a place where they were happy. And once happy, once your model is doing what you want it to reliably, why change it?

    Roleplaying is hard, and learning to do it harder. So there are reasons why folks build models and stick to them. Even the best game ever requires you to build a model of how to play it over time (thus the reason not everyone just sits down and plays, say, Sorcerer or Dogs without a single hickup ever), and that requires energy and commitment to openness. And some times when you just want to have fun, that is honestly a bit much to ask.

    The real problem, as I see it, isn’t that people build models and want to stick to them. Its when they do that without realizing it and then either 1) apply that model to exclude or unfairly criticize (“IAWA is broken because it doesn’t force players to abide by stakes”), 2) keeps them from enjoying games they want to enjoy (“I love the idea of Sorcerer, but it isn’t an RPG so I can’t play it”), or 3) when they’re unhappy with their current model and look for something different, then force everything they find into their current model (“I’m so tired of D&D, I want to try Sorcerer… but only if Sorcerer has levels and is about fighting monsters.”)

  5. Jesse, to what extent is Playing Passionately an enculturated system?

  6. I had given that some thought. The way I see it, Playing Passionately is an experience I seek *out* of a given game rather than something I bring *to* a given game.

    The techniques I talk about here are *features* I look for in a game because I think they deliver the experience I’m looking for. I don’t try to install these features in games that don’t already have them.

    But furthermore I think the things I talk about here are actually socially problematic. They are not simply “recommended” techniques. For example I think the absence of Character Advocacy causes social turmoil over plot authority. I don’t know if Character Advocacy is a necessary feature for all RPGs everywhere but if it is absent then something had best stand in its place. Thus I am curious about Wagers in Houses of the Blooded.

  7. brandrobins Says:


    I think you’ve got no choice, you have to play Houses. I mean, like it or lump it, you gotta try it at this point.

    Let me know what you think, btw, as I’m fairly sure I hate that system.

  8. […] “Play Passionately” blog on the the dangers of using techniques from different Story Gam… […]

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