Gamer Baggage

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.

22 Responses to “Gamer Baggage”

  1. I’m going to both agree and disagree. The agree part is easy. Designers should not impute their own views onto their audience without good reason. There we go.

    The disagree part comes from remembering Robin Laws talking about “Unrules” in the design of a CCG (I think it was On The Edge, but I could be wrong.) Basically, playtesters kept “tapping” their cards, a la Magic: The Gathering even though there was nothing in the OtE rules that told them to do this. Due to some other rules artifact, this caused problems. So eventually, they put an “unrule” in the book that told people not to do this. Clean? no. Necessary? Sadly, yes. It is unfortunate when the pragmatic clashes with the elegant in this way, but sometimes you have to tell people not to do something that they assume they should. Because the designer isn’t the only one with Gamer Baggage.

    (Also, Instincts in BW have like three different uses, only one of which is “avoiding being hosed” mechanism, but that’s a quibble.)

  2. Paul,

    I think I agree with your disagreement. What you describe sounds like the cross-section between what I call Encultured Systems (assumptions gamers carry from game to game) and The Social Mandate (the fundamental creative energy the players must bring to make the rules even begin to function).

    But there’s a difference between a text including some social Dos and Don’ts that elucidate the principles behind the design and trying to back-door encode rules traps to more or less keep problem players “in line.” Spione includes some text about how “acting out” the characters is not a priority of play but there aren’t any weird rules like, “No dialogue may be narrated” or “After three sentences the group must vote as to whether the dialogue can continue” or something like that.

    As for your quibble, yes I know but that’s the part about Instincts that most struck me because it seemed so overly defensive.


  3. brandrobins Says:


    I’m divided about this. On the one hand, Paul has a strong point. But there is also a divide between part of what he’s saying and what I see you pointing at.

    Remember how many people went batshit blind when IAWA came out and it turned out the biggest problem they were having was “don’t resolve stakes?” If Vincent had made a note of that somewhere in the book, it may have turned out easier for them.

    OTOH, this leads to a situation where you may well end up filling your game with “thou shalt nots” to the point of madness. How can you possibly fight every preconceived notion of your audience? How can you warn players not to tap resource cards, but also not to remove dead cards from the table when you’ve personally never played a game where they remove dead cards but it turns out half your audience has?

    Its a balancing act, for sure. (And I think in the specific case of IAWA, Vincent was right.)

    OTOH, there is also a difference between a game designed from a point of frustration and a “don’t tap the card” note in the game. A note about doing or not doing something may or may not be useful, but it is probably a very small thing compared the structure of the mechanical system that the game uses. A game designed from frustration, otoh, is going to have the avoidance and nullification of that frustration built into every part of the game. (Or at least a few parts, usually important ones.)

    While this isn’t death-murder on a game, it is limiting. The reason is that rather than trying to embrace potential the game is trying to avoid damage. And while avoiding damage is nice, it is not going to give the same level of gaming (over the longer term) as building a game to enhance.

    The thing about this is I’m not sure I agree with any of your examples. At least, not fully. Instincts in Burning Wheel do have a part of what you’re talking about — but its only one aspect of what makes instincts work in the game, and ignoring it isn’t going to change much else. Dirty Secrets I don’t have enough background with to address.

    And Shock! is… interesting. I think there is part of it that is an avoidance of frustration, but I also think it is from an intellectual structuralist approach to game that simply falls along a different axis than the way you or I tend to like to make games happen. I, at least, like a setup that is powerful but not overly constrained in which the themes emerge as the players passionately engage with the fiction. Shock!, otoh, is for a more constrained, logical, and structuralist game with a very sharp focus on specific issues. In this it tends to be 1) more like intellectualist SF novels, and 2) be more a story-creation or mutual storytelling game than a roleplaying or character-centered story game.

    So while I think JACN probably did have some frustration that went into the creation of the rules in that way, I don’t think that the reason they turned out that way is primarily from frustration with people not getting to SF themes in game. (I think that was the easiest to identify, so its the one that got the most focus.) I think it really comes from a place of wanting a game that is more logical and more about creating a story logically and structurally, and putting elements in place that will allow for that.

    However, despite my quibbles with the games you chose as examples, this is a thing I see clearly in many less-well established games, and in every other Game Chef entry. So many games are designed with a structural stance of “avoid this” and “never do that” that they cripple themselves from telling you what to actually do and in giving you a platform from which to find your own strength.

    And that thing, yea… I agree its got to go. We need to not design to avoid damage but to actually approach fun.

  4. Brand,

    Like I did with Paul I think I mostly agree with you. I picked the examples I did because they seemed like odd little artifacts within otherwise brilliantly designed games. You’re most definitely right that you see this far more in proto-games out of Game Chef and the like.

    It also occurs to me that a lot of the writings of John Wick seem to be concerned with thwarting certain kinds of gamers. I think it was him who said something about how you should never stat up truly scary monsters because if you give it stats players will load themselves up with TNT and build command basses in your otherwise 1930s Lovecraft genre piece.

    To which I can only think, giving the unspeakable stats is not the problem. Playing with players who don’t buy into the mode of play is the problem.


  5. Seth Ben-Ezra Says:

    First, I conquered the login problem. Me=Awesome!

    And now I will swoop in and defend Appeal in Dirty Secrets the way that I always did during playtest.

    et 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.

    Jesse, when you’ve played Dirty Secrets, has there ever been a time when someone narrated something, and another player shifted in his seat or said, “I don’t know….” or something like that. Then the narrator tweaked his narration and then all was well?

    That’s Appeal.

    Here’s the thing: even within a group who is engaging in a “functional and committed creative dialogue”, there will be differences of opinion about what’s “cool” and what’s not. Part of my design philosophy is that it is my responsibility as designer to equip the players with the tools to communicate about what is “cool” and what is not. Otherwise, I’m casting this vitally important issue onto the social level, waving my hands and saying, “You guys work it out somehow.” I think that doing this is abandoning the players at that point.

    So, I provide communication tools to help the group talk to each other by structuring a social dynamic. Appeal sets up a simple dynamic: any narration needs to impress *one* player enough that he will verbally defend it. This drastically reduces the amount of social pressure that can be asserted by a particular player who is really caught up in the moment. Again, not dysfunctional play. Actually, highly functional play of excited, passionate people. But passionate doesn’t always equal assertive, and so I wrote rules to encourage creative experiment, so long as it moved someone else at the table.

    Now, I’ve been gaming with my particular circle for a while. The smallest RPG group that I have is myself, my wife, and my sister. We’ve been gaming together (with some gaps) for…wow…ten years now. Maybe eleven? Anyways, a while. The larger group also includes Ralph and Keith, with whom we’ve been gaming for six years or so, and our friend Raquel, who we’ve been gaming with for a few years. All that to say: over this time, we have gradually developed an intuitive sense of what groupthink will say is “cool” or not. We’ve also gradually developed a trust in each other’s contributions and, honestly, we’ve learned how to warp each other’s contributions in functional ways for our group.

    And, when we’ve played Dirty Secrets, we’ve used Appeal to help coordinate our collective vision. Not much, to be sure, but somewhat. As the game goes on, it can fade into the background of implied negotiation and acceptance of particular narrations, but the concrete tools are always at hand to assist in structuring the conversation, if necessary.

    But Appeal won’t save you if your group isn’t already committed to playing the sort of detective noir that Dirty Secrets is about.

    • Seth,

      The incident of someone shifting in their seat and the narrator tweaking their narration has happened. And yes, I know that’s Appeal. My point is that in creatively synergistic group that’s how it happens, via social cues. My critique of Appeal is in the formalization of where someone actually says, “Appeal!” and someone else either does or doesn’t say, “Upheld!” Rather than just saying “Everyone contributes, current Authority has final say.”

      As I point out Spione has the exact same dynamic by simply pointing out that the player whose turn it currently is holds editorial power over the ensuing dialogue. I think the only difference between the two is that if no one Upholds the original narration in Dirty Secrets the narrator must change his narration where in Spione if the current “editor” really wants to stick to his guns he can even if the whole group is against him.


  6. Seth Ben-Ezra Says:


    I think the only difference between the two is that if no one Upholds the original narration in Dirty Secrets the narrator must change his narration where in Spione if the current “editor” really wants to stick to his guns he can even if the whole group is against him.

    Absolutely. That’s a fair statement of the difference between the two games.

    But, I didn’t want the Spione dynamic in Dirty Secrets. “Everyone contributes, current person with Jurisdiction gets final say” isn’t actually the dynamic that I wanted to create. I want final narration authority to rest in audience response, not in the narrator’s judgment of audience response. Though, to be more precise, I want final judgment of narration to rest with one’s fellow players, who respond either because 1) they are moved as an audience or 2) they are inspired as creators. After each narration, someone should say, “That was good” or say “I can work with that.” As a result, when I narrate, I am bound by the rules to respect the creative desires and responses of my fellow players.

    Now, I’m going to anticipate that your response is “Yes, but a creatively synergistic group can achieve this via social cue.” But a group achieves creative synergy through rules like this. In some ways, they are like training wheels that teach you to understand and respect each other.

    In addition, Dirty Secrets specifically tells you how to evaluate the social input from your fellow players; to wit, if anyone likes what you said, then it stands. In this way, the rules do serve as a leveling method to allow players who are not socially aggressive to have an equal say in the game.

    In my head, I see you reading this and saying, “But that’s my point! A good group won’t have a problem with social aggressiveness.” And I’ll just say that I’ve seen groups of friends–not game groups, mind you, but regular groups of people–who have had serious issues with social aggressiveness. It’s not necessarily gamer baggage to want to shape the social dynamic with specific rules.

  7. brandrobins Says:

    So, we all know that Dogs in the Vineyard is the best designed RPG of all time and that I love it and want to have Vincent’s babies. But…

    I was talking with some folks about the whole “no one can judge the Dogs” thing, and was seeing, yet again, the whole mistaken notion that because the GM doesn’t play God in Dogs that there is no ability for anyone at the table to morally judge the Dogs as human beings.

    This is so not my experience or understanding of Dogs, in which judging our own and each others characters, out notions and understandings of religion, violence, and community is the central point of play. I’ve always wondered how people got such a different view of it.

    So I was back, re reading the text. And while I still think that the way other people read is BAD and WRONG… I can see some places where they might get the impressions that lead to their line of thinking. Part of it, a large part, is because Vincent spends a good chunk of time talking about how other games do it and how this isn’t that, and much less time talking as sharply about how it actually should go in this game. (On this one topic only, on others he actually does a very good job of showing how it goes in this game.)

    The section is all “you know how other games do that, its bad for Dogs!” and “you know how GMs do this, its bad for Dogs!” and has a less specific, focused explanation about how judgment actually does work in Dogs. Because of that, its easy to read it (if you aren’t careful) as “no one gets to judge Dogs, not even the players.”

    Now, part of this is the difficulty of explicating process — especially a social process as nuanced as the way judgment works in Dogs. And part of it has to do with defining things negatively (that is, by what they are not). But I think part of it also has to do with a certain amount of gamer baggage — Vincent saying “thou shalt not” about bad games in the past where it would have been sharper to say “thou shall” about games in the future.

  8. Hey I wanted to speak about Shock:.

    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.

    The game works like this. We say social issues we’re genuinely interested in. Those social issues – I mean, as an aggregate, a conglomeration – exert influence on us as we then create a shock. Their intersection rules shocks in and out as possible, as appropriate.

    For instance, if I say “racism” and you say “hunger,” that suggests a different range of possible shocks than if I say “racism” and you say “gun control.” And if I say “constructed personal identity” and you say “sexual infidelity,” that’s a whole nother range of possible shocks.

    I do believe you when you say you’d rather play a game that’s like “what social issues would time travel raise?” And I happen to know that Shock: works perfectly well played that way too. There’s nothing in the rest of the rules that demands issue-first setup instead of shock-first setup. But it’s not a matter of past frustration or gamer baggage. It’s an intentional, thoughtful, and principled design decision.

  9. (And since I’m here I’ll say that I accept Brand’s criticisms of Dogs without caveat.)

  10. playsorcerer Says:

    I was fascinated by this:

    “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.”


    Um, Jesse, your front-loading the play of the game with a lack of interest already.

    Anyway, Vincent has cleaned some of it up, but what you describe is not how I played the game at a con, in a game facilitated by Judson Lester.

    People suggest Issues. They suggest Shocks. And where they Intersect are the color-gravity-wells (if you will) that play will orbit around. There’s no growing Shocks out of Issues.

    I’m not saying you’re overall thesis is wrong (maybe it is… I don’t know), but I think it’s causing you to look at a few games with very specific glasses.

    • I think I need to explain how I came to my conclusions about Shock. You learned Shock from Judson. That’s also where Will learned Shock. I learned Shock from Will. The way Will showed me how to play Shock was to first brainstorm a Shock and then come up with Issues that we thought interacted well with the Shock.

      That felt very natural to me because all the Issues I thought interacted well with the Shock were exactly the things that excited me about using the Shock in the first place. It was only after our first session that I read the text. In the text, you do Issues and then Shocks. Specifically, in that order. And that seemed weird to me.

      I brought that up on Story Games and we had an interesting little discussion about it. I know that it’s deliberate and well reasoned but in that discussion Joshua himself admitted that he may have been “over compensating.” I was his phrase about “over compensating” that lead me to think about other rules I’d seen in other places that I felt were “over compensating” and ultimately this article.


  11. playsorcerer Says:


    I thought there was a table, where you cross-referenced the Shocks and Issues…

    It doesn’t matter which order you create them in, since there’s no Shock without an Issue attached, nor an Issue without a Shock attached.

    When I played, we didn’t brain storm which Issues went well with a Shock or whatnot. You simply looked at the Intersection of them and built out ideas from how they met…. kind of like sideway Oracles from IAWA

    But that’s how we played that night. Maybe we did it wrong. But it was a kick-ass method of brainstorming cool concepts.

    • Yes. There’s a grid. You did it right. But if you do Issues and then Shock you can very easily end up with grid positions that make no sense. For example, if someone suggests “Feminism” as an issue and then later when you pick your Shock the group gets all fired up about “Perfect Global Defense” you end up having to figure out what the hell “Perfect Global Defense” has to do with “Feminism”

      I’m not saying that it can’t be done. I’m saying that seems unnaturally awkward. You either have to stretch a bit to figure out what your Shock has to do with the Issues proposed OR you have to veto Shocks based on their incompatibility with the issues proposed. It’s much easier to pick a Shock and see what Issues fall out from that because now all possible Issue-Shock grid intersections make sense.

      I think it would be less of a problem if you started play with more than one Shock or lots and lots of Issues because sure SOME Shock-Issue combos wouldn’t make sense but others would. But again, that’s not how it works according to the text. Each player chooses one Issue and then the group settles on a single Shock. If the Shock doesn’t combine with ALL the Issues, then someone’s Issue gets left out in the cold.

      With Shock first you end up drawing from a single source of enthusiasm instead of two potentially incompatible ones. I’m fired up about “Feminism” and I’m fired up about “Perfect Global Defense”… oh. Instead it’s “I’m fired up about Robots because of their impact on Personal Relationships.”


      P.S. As for “supposedly” I think we have to talk in person because I’m not sure what you’re reacting to.

  12. playsorcerer Says:

    And that “supposedly” business is still weird.

  13. playsorcerer Says:

    “Perfect Global Defense”

    There are certain genetic qualities that men posses, that, when strapped to the thingamabob, allows them to be perfectly functioning computers. They are alert, but able to handle and react to any threat of missile attacks faster than and computer alone. Men alone can do this, and they have become the safeguards of society. Women, it is said, owe all their safety to men. They are, by definition now, second class citizens, for every man (or most, there are a few who can’t do it) must serve two years in the machines. They are considers gods (by many) protecting us from the threat of war. Women are only mortal.

    But that’s neither here nor there. You get spooked that you’ll fail to come up with something. I’m not. I learned years ago if you give a human being a couple of key words, they’ll fashion something cool and unexpected.

    I prefer, in fact, this kind of tool. It’s not a challenge. It’s the best and fastest way to generate cool content.

    As for the game I played: I think we cheated. We each proposed an Issue, and we each proposed a Shock. And then we opened up the floor and people got to choose one mixes we created. It really rocked.

    As for “supposedly” —

    You wrote:

    “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. ”

    I just thought it was weird you qualified the choice the Player makes that interests them with “supposedly”. I would just assume it actually DOES interest the player. That’s all.

  14. brandrobins Says:

    So in the game of Shock I played with JACN we had “solar system empire” and “feminism” (“which has been co-opted by lesbians and man-haters” says one of the players…), “slavery”, “colonialism” and shit… AIs?

    The game never gelled. Part of this was because we, the players, couldn’t get our shit together. I own that. I also own that I could not, no matter how I tried, communicate with one of the other players to the point that it wasn’t possible for us to do anything together productively.

    So that’s the biggest part of what happened.

    It was also a one shot con game that we were trying to get through quickly. And so we rushed things, and we probably weren’t as critical about issues and shocks as we could have been.

    But the end result of it was that we put forward issues that we were “supposedly” interested in — and I mean “supposedly” in that we ourselves supposed it — that ended up being NOT INTERESTING AT ALL in play.

    Gamers, and that’s me, sometimes don’t know what they want. Sometimes they do, but can’t get it out at the table. So yea, I think the supposedly is justified.

    It isn’t a game killer. It doesn’t have to be an issue. It can be worked past. But assuming that its just as easy as “everyone will be always honest, especially with themselves, and will always have the presence of mind to be critical going in” isn’t going to help.

    I’d think it far better to actually look at the techniques that make it work than to assume the default is naturally working.

  15. playsorcerer Says:

    Hi Brand,

    I’m not sure if I’m about to bend this thread to the breaking point (and Jesse, if I’m doing so, I apologize) but I needed to follow up.

    You wrote:

    “But assuming that its just as easy as ‘everyone will be always honest, especially with themselves, and will always have the presence of mind to be critical going in’ isn’t going to help.”

    I want to be clear that I don’t think there’s ANYTHING “easy” about knowing who you are, knowing what you want, and being clear about what you’re doing. So, let’s be fair — it’s hard. I assume it’s hard.

    And let’s be even more fair — not all RPG are going to require this from the Players. Not only different RPGs, but different play groups will demand different levels of self-awareness and focus.

    With that said, I need to ask: You are saying the rules and procedures of an RPG that DOES require this can somehow get around the fact that the people at the table aren’t doing this hard work?

    Because this is a huge point.

    Now, let me be clear about where I’m coming from. I see RPG texts as tools. Not art, but tools. Like a piano or brush and paints. At least the ones I like to play.

    And at some level we have to assume a piano will not make music for you, the brush and paints will not make the painting. It will take awareness on the part of the pianist or the painter to know what kind of work they want to make, to know when they are succeeding and failing.

    And if we broaden the metaphor to a social activity — band for example — I’m with Jesse that it’s up to the participants to pay attention. To not only know themselves and what they want, but to really pay attention to what the other musicians are doing.

    So, that’s me.

    And now I’m checking with you, because, again, this is huge:

    You are suggesting that the game text can get past people who are not doing this work? Or support them despite this?


    • Christopher,

      You are not bending this thread, you are playing right into my master plan. What I’m going to say here will probably show up as a separate article with more details. I don’t think game design can alleviate us of responsibility for our art. However, one of the most powerful tools that RPGs give us is a layer of indirection.

      I tried to find the exact quote but couldn’t. Ron once said of Spione that if you ask someone about the Cold War you’ll get an answer. If you play Spione with them you’ll get their REAL answer.

      Yes, it’s hard to know thyself and articulate your true interests and talk openly about the underlying ideas in a creative activity. It’s much, much easier to be judgmental and emotional about Color and Situation. That’s one of the reason’s that I think Dogs in the Vineyard is so accessible to more traditional players. You can totally play it in “find clues, kick ass” Call of Cthulhu mode and as long as the GM has used Town Creation to setup the situation the play group is going to address Premise likely without ever realizing it.

      One of the common complaints about “Narrativism” is that it seems so abstract and high-minded where we sit around talking about Issues and Stakes and Conflicts like some kind of cold academic exercise to produce quality literature. Play Passionately is about dispelling that myth. Forget Humanity definitions. Forget articulating Issues. Forget setting stakes like their vital cross-roads of no return. Use those things to stack the deck but once the first card flips over play from the gut.

      I’m suggesting that game designs can work like Rorchach tests. Load them up with emotionally charged color and situation and let the players attack it with raw knee-jerk feelings. Like Brand I don’t trust the words that come out of people’s mouths when asked direct questions about their thoughts and priorities and interests. I completely trust emotional responses created from suggestive fictional stimuli.

      The caveat on *that* is that not everyone is comfortable about *acting* on their raw emotions and that’s doubly troublesome in gamer culture especially in groups which are founded on a No One Gets Hurt philosophy where judgment is frowned upon and inclusion at all costs is a virtue. However, I still think it’s easier to coax someone to realize that it’s okay to act on what their feeling in this game than it is to try and get them to see and address Premise directly.


  16. brandrobins Says:


    Jesse’s answer largely mirrors mine. However, for the part where I may not be with him I’ll say this:

    No, I don’t think texts can make you do shit, or help you know yourself. It is possible, I think, to make rules that provoke a certain style of play, to give processes that act as aids to those willing to do the work. But even those won’t help if people aren’t able to be honest with themselves.

    However, I think it is possible to build communities of practice that do what texts don’t. And, honestly, I’m really much more interested in that the text creation. I’m not interested in public-production-for-consumption game design anymore. I am, however, very interested in how people interpret, use, and then as a group re-interpret, reinforce, and use or don’t use game texts.

    So much of what I’m talking about has to do less with the text specifically then with the hazy area where text meets group meets play.

    • Brand,

      I agree with you. At the end of the day the player has to be honest with himself about what he’s feeling and no text is going to substitute for that willingness.

      My main point though is that I think “the images in this book turn me on” is a much easier (and trustworthy) starting point than asking direct questions. If a player is clearly engaged on that level and the design is targeted at channeling that engagement then I think successful play is highly likely.

      Trollbabe works explicitly like this. It throws up a highly evocative image of a Trollbabe and says, “Do you get it?” The answer is either yes and you play or no and you don’t. There’s no discussion of what the game is “about.”

      But I agree that getting to that level of engagement beyond a casual, “sure, sounds neat, whatever” is a trust fall no design or text is ever going to make someone take. If anything this blog is all about getting people to (a) realize there’s a trust fall there and (b) think about taking it. Especially since such play which starts with “this turns me on” often ends with, “Holy shit and that’s WHY it turns me on!”


  17. brandrobins Says:


    Yes, certainly.

    I also think there is a thing in between text and play that can help.

    Things, like say, this blog. Or some book I hear some dude is working on called “Play Sorcerer.”

    These are things that aren’t the game, that aren’t rules, but that are ways of working out process, of understanding subtext, of getting things to work by aligning player, rules, understanding, practice, process, and technique.

    Like, I love Dogs. Dogs is awesome. But unlike what some people say, Dogs does not work perfectly out of the box for every group if they just “follow the rules in the book closely.” I’ve seen it fail. I’ve seen people unable to grasp it, to follow the rules and still end up with not good play.

    A lot of the reasons it goes wrong are things you’ve talked about (in other contexts) on this blog. Some of your articles would have helped at least one of those groups have a better Dogs game in a way that the text of Dogs itself couldn’t.

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