The Culture of Outcome

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.

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7 Responses to “The Culture of Outcome”

  1. […] via The Culture of Outcome « Play Passionately. […]

  2. You said: “Could there be more design advances in this direction?”

    There’s a particular design that I’m pretty sure you dislike that I think is great for these players: player conflict resolution.

    It’s those people who play PTA and use the conflict resolution rules by determining what the potential results are before they roll. Who essentially cut out the high card narrates aspect. That way they can say things like:

    A Ninja attacks a certain players character and that player says: Ok, this is conflict, but we all know my guy kills the ninja, so what’s really at stake is whether or not the Ninja tells him about his dead sister. On a success the ninja tells him, on a failure he doesn’t.

    Which has nothing really to do with the conflict and is more about the outcomes the players want to see.

    I think conch shell passing is another good tool for this style of play.

    As for fake Narr, I wonder if fake Narr is related to must-be-Narr. Must-be-narrs are those players who discover Narr and for a time only play it, but later venture back out to Gam or Sim safely because they know they can now have Narr whenever they want.

    Like, players who got burnt so often by GMs railroading that they absolutely must see a story turn out with their characters decisions mattering. They must railroad before they are willing to let a story develop with everyone’s input, because to have anything less in their minds is to just end up with another railroad where their character’s decisions don’t matter.

    • jburneko Says:

      Quite frankly I don’t think pre-negotiated outcomes is functional in general. What it does is by-pass the system in favor of social maneuvering to get things done. It provides no mechanism for you to definitively protect what you want protecting. All it does is open the door for you to do so *if* you’re socially strong enough to cow everyone into agreeing.

      Quite frankly, it’s exactly what used to be done covertly when GMs read the vibe at the table and fudged die rolls to meet expectations. It’s just now done in the open and worse everyone gets to say which way the outcome should be “fudged” with no stop gap over when negotiation should end.

      There’s no High Card editor….
      There’s no Stick and Fallback like In A Wicked Age…

      All there is, is social brawling. I want this! But no I want that! But that means that I can’t do this! With no end in sight and no distribution of editorial authority.

  3. playsorcerer Says:

    Jesse,

    I’ve been thinking about this further…

    Culture of Outcome is a function of the Right to Dream, yes?

    How to best execute the desired results (fudging, pre-planning results, giving Players bennie-points of one kind or another to get the results they want) is something to be discussed. I think people want to have the illusion that what their PC did involved risk — without actual risk. (Hence fudging as a result — rolls are made, but the GM offers up what he knows the Player wanted.)

    I’m agreeing with everything you’re saying. Just noting that it falls squarely into a CA — and it’s one that runs counter to your preferred CA — hence an entry by you about it!

  4. santiveron Says:

    this is so true! i love evilhat and i think this is great in their game; some of this design philosophy can also be seen on their small game PACE, the generic diceless dice pool with a strong FATE flavor. basically they want the tropes to stay in place; the strong musketeer shows his force only when it’s cool; the heroes lose at the beginning and win at the end, and never die if it’s not glorious.
    love the blog!

  5. oberonthefool Says:

    I have some of these tendencies myself. I’ve never quite heard it put so succinctly, so thanks for that.

    All too often I feel, what I think of as “cockblocked” by game mechanics that won’t support the outcomes I feel are appropriate. It does matter how mechanical failure is characterized, to be sure- if failure is still interesting and doesn’t make me look like a loser, then it’s not so bad. But systems where “all you have is a hammer” because if you aren’t rolling your highest stat, your chances are pretty low are often frustrating.

    I know that’s not exactly the same thing, sorry, bit of a tangent.

    But yeah, there are definitely times when I pre-play in my head and figure out what outcomes I want beforehand rather than just seeing what happens. It depends on how invested I am in the character- it’s actually easier when I don’t care that much.

    One mechanic I’ve used in my own games to deal with this is “Hero Coins”- similar to bennies in other games, except mine give you, for example, +10 on a d10 roll. They are not just a guaranteed hit, they are a guaranteed Holy Crap You Succeed With Extra Awesome! Of course you have to earn them (similarly to FATE points), but dammit, I hate turning in a FATE, an Action Point, or whatever other benny a given game has, and STILL FAILING. NOT. ACCEPTABLE. If you pay to win, then you goddamn WIN.

    Hm. I think I may have actually just written two separate rants that are only tangentially related to the topic =\

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