Archive for April, 2009

The Culture of Outcome

Posted in Actual Play, Core Principles on April 23, 2009 by jburneko

Over on RPG.net hyphz (real name unknown to me) wrote about a kind of player who outwardly seems very invested in character and story but expresses frustration over not being able to simultaneously have moments of suspense and doubt and still have the story turn out “right.” Hyphz refers to this kind of player as a “Fake Narrativist.”

Bailywolf (Bruce Baughn?) in a follow up post suggests the following:

“…I think this guy is asking for a system which doesn’t resolve … hits and misses, but which resolves conflicts where all possible outcomes are interesting and engaging. meaning, it’s not about “winning” or “losing”, but about the mechanics producing story twists and spawning more play.


He doesn’t want to roll to hit… he wants to roll to see if unexpected and dramatic shit happens in a scene. If he’s got an agenda- a way he wants it to turn out- then he has something to try for, but if the mechanics output something cool regardless of who’s agenda is realized, then I think he’d be happy with it.”

To which I say, no, the type of player hyphz is talking about absolutely does not want that. The type of player hyphz describes exhibits confusion between Story, Character and Outcome as if all three of those things are one and the same. Failure to achieve a desired Outcome (good or bad) is tantamount to not having been allowed to play his Character “correctly” which results in the Story having been “ruined.” No matter how compelling from an external point of view the undesired outcome may be, the player now believes his character to be in the “wrong” story. It’s no longer the story he built his character to tell.

So much dialogue is spent discussing GM-driven railroading that I think player-driven railroading is under discussed and under identified. Once upon a time on The Forge we spoke of the Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. That is, it is impossible for the GM to control the story while the players control the protagonists. I would now like posit the OTHER Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. That is, it is impossible for the players to control the story while the GM controls the antagonists. You simply can not have legitimate adversity without legitimate risk.

Going a little further in hyphz’s thread there are people who are questioning the existence of such a hypothetical player. I’m currently running a Sorcerer & Sword game. I was a little surprised when one of my players said to me, “I don’t like how much the dice define my character in this game.” Considering that the character’s choices and actions were 100% under her control I was a little confused by this so I asked a few key questions. What I discovered was that there had apparently been a few key conflicts she had failed. Failing those conflicts had, to her, rewritten her character concept because the character she wanted to play “would have” succeeded at those things.

The amusing thing, to me, is that from the point of view of an external audience member those conflicts didn’t look any different than any other conflict she had failed but had been fine with. To me, all I saw was a character in motion and the outcomes from that motion. There were no cues to suggest to me the same a priori character redefining “it” moments that were so obvious to the player herself. Even if I had the power to “fudge” those rolls there was nothing to suggest that I should do so. This “character via outcome” exists entirely within the mind of the player.

Oddly, I don’t really see much of a problem satisfying the “fake narrativist” and indeed I think a lot more design has gone towards satisfying that creative aesthetic than people think. Perhaps, again, owing to the fact that I don’t think the phenomenon is well identified. For example, consider the debates over linear vs. bell-curve outcome probabilities. One of the primary points made on the bell-curve side is that it makes outcomes more predictable. In fact, Fudge dice are sort of the extreme product of that debate since the bell-curve is centered on zero no matter how many you roll.

Post resolution modification systems also tend to support this style of play. Pre-roll modification systems such as Fan Mail in Primetime Adventures or Bonus/Roll-Over dice in Sorcerer tend to be about emotional weight and narrative momentum. However, consequences are consequences once the mechanic is deployed. Post roll resolution such as Fate Points in Spirit of the Century and Drama Dice in 7th Sea cater much more to the notion that random success and failure are cool for generating detailing but when the critical conflicts (as identified in the player’s mind) come up the outcome can be controlled to conform to expectation.

Could there be more design advances in this direction? Perhaps. But I think there needs to be more analytical honesty among this play base first. Frankly, I see a lot of denial about this style of play. The player clearly holds a profound need to have his character’s story turn out “right” but at the same time rejects all tools that would explicitly allow him to do so. So the tools that have been developed are all indirect, leaving holes where things might still not turn out right if the resources aren’t at hand or enough aberrant die rolls happen.

But that’s a design discussion and this is Play Passionately.

Choices & Internal Conflicts

Posted in Core Principles on April 1, 2009 by jburneko

In a post on his blog, Gameslinger Enterprises, about the game “Montsegur 1244” Paul Tevis wrote:

“One problem I expected to have revolved around the fact that we (and especially Christina) like to use resolution mechanics to help make decisions for our characters. I realize this is a heretical view to some roleplayers, akin to rolling on the NPC Reaction Table in the way it seems to prioritize “roll-playing” over “role-playing.” However, in certain systems we’ve found ways to let the mechanics give us a “push” when we’re not sure how a character should react to something.”

This got me thinking because I’m one of those people who doesn’t like using resolution mechanics for making character choices. However, it’s not because of the dumb (and non-existent) cliché of “roll-playing” vs. “role-playing.” I love social conflict resolution mechanics, for example. But I found myself wondering why I don’t mind rolling to see if my character takes the guy’s bribe but utterly hate rolling to decide if I’m going to call the cops when I discover my character’s brother committed a crime.

Thinking things through I came to the conclusion that my issue is that I don’t really believe in the existence of internal conflicts. I believe in wholly internal choices and priorities but not conflicts. Consider, for example, that I want to buy a new video game console. I have enough money for a PS3 or an X-Box 360 but not both. The factor is where I put my money. This is a choice but it’s not a conflict. The reason I say this is because no other person’s interests are served or undermined by my decision and subsequent action.

Now consider that my girlfriend is really into Final Fantasy, which is usually a PlayStation exclusive franchise, and I’m really into first person shooters which have better multiplayer support on X-Box Live. NOW, I’m in a conflict. However, it isn’t an “internal” conflict at all. Like it or not, I’m in a conflict with my girlfriend. She might not be there but we carry our relationships around with us whether we like it or not. My decision is either going to serve or undermine her interests and I’m going to have to live with the consequences.

Given this, why am I bothered by the idea of rolling to decide whether my character calls the cops on his brother? After all, isn’t sending him to jail undermining his interests? Well, not necessarily because relationships are complex. Since we’re talking about an imaginary relationship I don’t have all the details. For all I know, my character’s brother really respects his integrity and would WANT him to call the cops. That’s what’s really missing for me in this situation. I don’t know what the brother would want and I don’t know what actions he’d be willing to take to back it up even if he isn’t here right now. Without those two things there is no conflict, just a choice.

I don’t like rolling to make choices. Making choices is why I play because I learn stuff about myself and my fellow players that way. However, I totally sympathize with the content of Paul’s comments because I know what that creative block of being pinned down in the fiction feels like. I think his phrase “give us a ‘push’” is dead on because every time I’ve felt like that there have been massive external forces (if not physically present or active) pressing in on the character and I want the dice to tell me which way he topples.

I don’t mind this because the dice are not making a character choice.  They’re telling me which external force is strongest. Now that I know which force is strongest that’s what my character must make a choice about. I think we often don’t perceive it as a choice because once we know which way the forces are flowing what our character “would do” feels natural and obvious and we miss the fact that there are other things we could do in response to the flow of that force.