Archive for January, 2009

Passionate Play #6: Core Principles In Action

Posted in Actual Play on January 30, 2009 by jburneko

In the unWritten game that I just finished playing there came a scene where a whole bunch of stuff I talk about here crashed together in a way that gave me a bit of pause. So, my character Gaston can’t let go of his sister, Sophia, whose about to become queen of pseudo-France. So he has her kidnapped. He then confronts her and explains that he’s booked passage on a ship and that they’re running away together. Over the course of the game it became really clear that Sophia had accepted her adult responsibilities and knew what was required of her politically and socially.

I prefer to keep conflict defined strictly as being about two in-fiction characters clashing over in-fiction interests. We clearly had that here. I also prefer to play as my character’s advocate always gunning for what I think the character wants regardless of whether I want it for him or not.. What Gaston wanted was for his sister to come away with him. However, unWritten is more or less a stakes setting game and I could have just put that out as the goal. However, that didn’t sit right with me. It would have been one of those “emotional disconnect” moments for me.

First of all it flies in the face of the rather strongly established facts of Sophia’s character. But unWritten also has an explicit end condition you can see coming. We were very near the end of the story in terms of the game’s rules. I think I would have been okay simply setting, “Sophia agrees to come with me” as stakes if there had been a more indefinite story space because there would have been room for it turn out that she was lying or placating me. In other words, succeeding in having her agree to come with me externally, says nothing about what her internal state or long term out look on it really is. There wasn’t room for that in terms of the remaining scene count.

As an aside this is one of those moments that makes me appreciate games like Sorcerer more. In Sorcerer we would just have rolled Will vs. Will and even if Gaston won Sophia could have just gone on being as resolute as ever but Gaston would have had a nice little pile of victories for when he picked her up by force and carried her out the door (or whatever else he choose to do next). I wouldn’t have had to struggle so much emotionally because this is an obvious Will conflict and I know that you can’t ever restrict the behavior of a character.

In any event, I also have a strong dislike for resolving so-called internal conflicts systemically because I often consider making choices about those internal states to be the very reason I’m playing the game. However, in this case I set the stakes as, “Does Gaston let go of his sister?” I didn’t like wording it that way but at the same time I was okay with it. It took me a couple days to figure out why.

I realized I was okay with it because it was a backdoor way of wording the external conflict from Sophia’s perspective. I wasn’t rolling to achieve Gaston’s agenda (come away with me sister). I was rolling to defend against Sophia’s agenda (let me go brother). And that interpretation matches much more with how I continued to play Gaston. I didn’t play Gaston like he let go of his sister. I played him like he’d given up the fight. Sophia beat him.

Passionate Play #5: You Can’t Ruin The Story

Posted in Actual Play, Core Principles on January 7, 2009 by jburneko

I’m going to make a bold claim (what else do I do on this site): Stories can not be ruined. Okay now let me qualify that: Stories can not be ruined through legitimate situational transformations alone. That might sound odd since my last Passionate Play post was all about how a Sorcerer game failed. However, I would like to point out that there was nothing wrong with the state of the fiction. The story was fine. Right now I could totally pick up the fiction where it left off and keep writing. What happened was that the players’ creative connection to the fiction was severed.

Recently Alex Duarte asked me to play his game unWritten. The setup is a pseudo-Europe with swashbuckling overtones. The Princess of Pseudo-France has just become of marrying age and the Kings of Pseudo-England and Pseudo-Spain are vying to marry her for political gain. My character is the Princess’s brother and Laura is playing her bodyguard.

The game is structured such that every player gets a turn to put their character in the spotlight where everyone introduces adversity for that character. It was Laura’s scene and I introduced an assassin who makes an attempt to kill the Princess. Laura’s character goes to stop him.

Now as this is going on Alex made a comment about downgrading my attempt to kill the Princess to simply attempting to wound her. Laura made a concurring comment about how if the Princess dies it deflates our entire setup. And they kind of proceeded assuming the situation was downgraded to wounding without really talking to me but that’s okay because Laura scored a partial success and although I had narration with that outcome my response was the same regardless of whether we were talking about wounding or killing.

However, I want to look a little closer at that sentiment that somehow the game/story would die along with the Princess. Is that really true? Yes, it certainly would have completely transformed the nature of the story at hand. I’m not convinced it would have ruined it. Let’s take a look at the characters.

My character has listed “his sister’s emotional welfare” as the thing he most values. Her death would certainly be shocking to him. Currently my story is about growing up and coming to terms with adult responsibility. My character projects a lot of that onto his sister and his somewhat controlling desire to preserve her innocence. Her death would likely have transformed those controlling elements from being less about change and responsibility and more about revenge or learning not to blame yourself for things you aren’t really responsible for.

Alex’s character is the son of the man ruling the country while the princess was still underage. I think he’s in love with her. Since line of succession would fall to my character that would have likely put us at political odds. His story would have likely changed from one about practicalities of politics interfering with love to one of childhood friendship put at odds through those same political practicalities.

Laura’s character probably would have faced the most radical redefinition. Her initial setup seemed to be about duty and honor and loyalty. The Princess dying would have transformed that into a story about dealing with failure or possibly having to find new purpose in life when the one thing you’ve dedicated yourself to gets taken away.

Now I’m not saying that any of these rather severe and radical transformations wouldn’t have severed our creative connection to the fiction. Indeed the commentary at the table suggested that it likely would have but I’d like to point out that The Princess’s death would not have “ruined” the story. The story would only have been radically redefined from our current expectations of it.

What I take away from this relative to my Play Passionately interests is learning to cultivate the skill in distinguishing between a genuinely bad artistic decision and these moments of radical transformation. I suggest that Playing Passionately as I envision it means being willing to risk having these kinds of transformations occur One moment you thought the story or your character was all about thing X but due to a turn of the situation or dice it’s no longer possible to pursue that thing. The story at hand has changed on a very fundamental level and you need to be willing to change with it.

If you feel the change at hand is severing your connection with the fiction perhaps taking a break is in order. Call the game, go home, sleep on it, and reevaluate the fiction. Reevaluate yourself and your relationship with the fiction, find what does engage you about this new situation (and its ramifications on your character) and begin authoring from there.

Gamer Baggage

Posted in Core Principles, Design on January 5, 2009 by jburneko

I generally like to keep the articles here focused on play but this article is going to step a bit on the design side only because it ties in with my fiction-first principles. There are rules and procedures in games that I’ve been taking note of lately that I think of as coming from “gamer baggage.” Let’s be honest, a lot of us come from extremely unsatisfying and frustrating experiences within the hobby. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to get rather specific experiences out of gaming and utterly failing. “Gamer baggage” is what happens when a designer takes that frustration and then tries to build in rules and procedures into a game that force or restrain other player’s behaviors to conform to the experience the designer is trying to get out of his own game rather than assuming that basic buy-in as given.

I point to the procedures of creating Issues and Shocks in the game Shock as an example. As written everyone proposes a social Issue that supposedly interests the player and then you create the science fiction Shock to see how it interacts with those issues. That process strikes me as backwards if you assume basic player commitment to the social issue aspects of science fiction. Where science fiction is concerned social issues alone do not excite me. Instead, the social issues *raised* by the proposed Shock does excite me.

I can’t speak for Joshua (the author of Shock) but the written rules seem to stem from repeated frustrating experience where “science fiction” in a game simply meant “we use lasers instead of swords” on an otherwise bog standard action-flick scenario. It seems like an attempt to force people to focus on the issues by taking the fun sci-fi toy away from them rather than assuming that the game’s target audience is made up of the kind of people who will get excited by the social ramifications of the proposed sci-fi toy.

I will admit to strong personal bias in this regard since I’m very much a color-first player. I see the social issues raised by the setup of a lot of board games. When playing Sorcerer I like to think about the look & feel of Demons and Sorcery and other Setting elements and then see what Humanity definition falls out from that. Other people seem to like putting the Humanity definition out front and center and building everything else around it.

However, another example seems to be Instincts in Burning Wheel. Allow me to first say that I have never played Burning Wheel nor have I read the game in its entirety. I have, read the section on Instincts which struck me as being overly defensive against GMs who like to play “gotcha” games. GM: “You spring the trap!” Rogue Player: “What? I’m a professional! I wouldn’t have gone in there without checking for traps!” GM: “Gotcha! You didn’t *say* you were checking for traps!” Again, assuming a basic functional dialogue about the game I’m not entirely sure Instincts are necessary (based on my reading of them).

Yet a third example might be the Appeal rules in Dirty Secrets which allow a formal process of calling into question someone’s narration. I think the Jurisdiction (who has authority over fictional components at a given time) concepts presented are sufficient assuming a functional and committed creative dialogue. I’m not entirely convinced that the Appeal rules are necessary and indeed I’ve never actually seen them used in my own play. Indeed Dirty Secret’s spiritual predecessor Spione uses Jurisdiction alone.

My point is that those of us who aspire to be designers (and indeed those of us who seek functional play at all) need to set aside the rage born of frustration and take for granted that those playing the game are socially functional and creatively synergistic about the game at hand. Putting things in such harmonious terms may make it seem like I’m suddenly advocating that the system doesn’t matter. Allow me to present a counter example to dispel that notion.

System in its entirety (the sum all of techniques used, not just the mechanics) shapes the dialogue space among the group members. So even assuming total creative synergy the system used can either help or hinder the application and realization of that creative synergy. So let’s take a look at the Issue as presented in Primetime Adventures. Similar to my discussion about Shocks and Issues in the game Shock one might argue that anyone committed to good television would naturally create issue laden characters. This is true, however, my point about Shock was not that the Issues get spelled out but that they get spelled out *first*.

In Primetime Adventures having the Issue written down focuses the character especially if the character is rather complex in the player’s head. In some sense it frees the player to play the character as richly and complex as they would like while communicating a central reference point to the rest of the play group for evaluating that complexity. Combine the Issue with the concept of the Spotlight Episode and you have a clearly defined target for the group to hit *for this season*. A different aspect of the character might very well be the target for next season.

From my point of view the Issue and the other design components of PTA aren’t there to force or restrain behavior but to enrich a set of behaviors that were hopefully already there. And that kind of design is ultimately very selfish. It’s about reflecting on what you like to do and creating tools that make that an easy and fun thing to do with other people who also already want to do it and not get caught up in making the game resistant to the presence of non-socially functional or creatively un-invested players. This is by no means an easy thing to do as the frustration and hate of “Gamer Baggage” runs deep, silent and deadly.