Archive for the Actual Play Category

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.

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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.

Passionate Play #4: Epic Fail… Maybe Not So Epic

Posted in Actual Play on November 7, 2008 by jburneko

I very recently had a Sorcerer game fail. It didn’t fail because of scheduling conflicts. It didn’t fail because of lack of creative synergy or social cohesion from the group (Will and Laura whom I play with a lot). It just plain came to a screeching halt in a dead end of No Fun. Sorcerer is a game that requires the GM be a strong leader. Therefore, I take full responsibility for what happened. This article is my letter of resignation.

The biggest mistake I made was forgetting that neither player had every played a full, from scratch, game of Sorcerer. So there were some choices I made based on my experience with the game that don’t work well with beginning players. Probably the biggest of these was neglecting to come up with cohesive look & feel for sorcery.

A lot of people get worked up about defining Humanity as the central point of Sorcerer prep. I much prefer to start with flavor. What kinds of people are Sorcerers? What does sorcery look like? What shape and form do demons take? When strong enough that kind of stuff tends to cluster around some general issues from which some notions about Humanity become apparent. Whether you need to spell it out or not varies from group to group.

I didn’t do that. Nor did I customize the descriptor list. What I did was ask the group what kind of Sorcerer game they’d like to play. It was decided to do something historical set in the American Civil War. I thought this was very similar to when I ran my game set in New Orleans just after the Katrina disaster. Except that time I DID come up with a coherent look and feel for sorcery and I did customize the descriptor list. I just forgot I did that.

The result of this was the players ended up creating two very different “schools” of sorcery. Laura’s demon was the ghost of her dead brother and Will’s demon was the fire that burned Atlanta. That by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. What went wrong is that I failed to properly consider the two schools. This made it very easy for me to play the brother demon but I struggled to play the fire demon in any meaningful manner. It wasn’t even until near the end of the second session that I had any inkling regarding what it wanted or even how it communicated.

Another mistake I made was not enforcing the zero humanity means the story is over for your character rule. I’m not a fan of that rule. I much prefer the suggestions in Sorcerer Soul. In my New Orleans game there was a ritual where THREE PCs went to zero humanity simultaneously and we gave each one of them different consequences for doing so. I tried to apply the same methodology here and it didn’t work.

What happened was Will’s character ended up going to zero Humanity as he murdered a Union Captain in order to force his ghost to give up some information. I had made it clear that I wasn’t going to use the “game over” rules. Instead I unbound the fire demon and sent it on a rampage. I also had the contact ritual Will’s character performed to talk to the Union Captain’s ghost be stuck open. I liked the metaphor of Will’s character being “haunted” by his actions.

Now all of that was fine. However, when you allow a character to go to zero Humanity and bounce back that should be a character redefining moment. The problem was there wasn’t enough established in the fiction or from character creation for Will to find a new direction for his character. In fact, the immediate circumstances now facing him, given his original drives and motivations would only send him bouncing back up and down and up and down against zero Humanity.

I found out why allowing characters to go to zero Humanity is an advanced technique first hand. Will found himself creatively stuck. Not being experienced with the game he found his character lacking the nuances necessary to bolster his Humanity or reverse direction in his current crisis point. I think had I enforced the zero Humanity means game over rule that wouldn’t have been as big a problem. It would have been easier to brainstorm alternatives to killing the Union Captain or to decide that it was a short and swift end to that character than it was to deal with the more complicated situation given how the character was conceived.

Laura’s character suffered from the opposite problem. Her character had lots of nuances but lacked the drive that keeps a sorcerer moving forward. In this case I had failed to make it clear that a Sorcerer game really is all about whatever it is you write on your character sheet. Laura’s character’s parents were dead and she was living at her aunt and uncle’s place. Her Will descriptor was “Rageful and Vengeful.” Her demon was her brother hosted in her own body. His Desire was Competition and his Need was to go whoring. Her Kicker was that her cousin who helped her summon the demon had gone missing.

What I saw here was a woman who was so angered by what the war had done to her family that she was willing to do anything including summing the dead to keep them together or avenge them. So I thought I was speaking to all of that when I had her missing cousin entangled in a plot to refine his “gift“ to raise an undead confederate army and when I played her brother as a willing-to-do-anything for the cause but confounded by his rivalry with a fellow soldier over the affections of a prostitute.

Instead I ended up locking Laura into a place of creative confusion as well. She made it clear that these elements were way too intense and she just wanted her character to go home. I do have a tendency to drive my Sorcerer games very hard which may have contributed to the “intensity” being louder than it needed to be. That’s a problem I have in general.

In the end Will’s character had the drive without the nuances necessary to prevent his character from being a villain. Laura’s character had the nuances but without the drive to be a protagonist. When I saw both players were absolutely struggling with “what to do next.” I asked a few questions which uncovered these problems. It was clear the game had dead locked into a zone of No Fun. So I suggested we call the game.

Here’s the point I want to make about all this. We failed. It sucks. But you know what? That’s okay. Next time, Will will make a more subtle character so that he doesn’t dive into humanity zero land. Laura will construct a more driven character with elements she doesn’t mind being the absolute focus of the game. I will bring more focused prep and try not to play so loudly. We learn. We move on. We practice.

Passionate Play #3: Zombies Move Slowly

Posted in Actual Play on September 23, 2008 by jburneko

I recently had the opportunity to play Zombie Cinema. Before playing I had heard about the suggested house rule that the Zombies start off the board and there is a round of scenes where there can be no conflicts. The claim was this lead to a richer game. I took one look at the board and realized this house rule is completely unnecessary.

Here’s why: The zombies start five steps behind the players. In a four player game this means there are potentially up to sixteen scenes before anyone is in danger of getting eaten assuming there are no conflicts in those scenes. That’s more scenes than whole episodes of Primetime Adventures I’ve played. That’s plenty of time to have several setup scenes of the characters just interacting.

But this assumes that people are willing to walk, not run to conflict. It assumes that people are simply enjoying the character interactions and willing to *identify* rather than try to make or contrive a conflict (especially for the sake of trying to “get ahead.”). I would point out that the sacrifice rules and the audience sympathy mechanic pretty much destroy any notion that this game is about “winning.”

One of the games I played in was set as a western. I drew “Macho”, “Injured” and “Secret In My Past” as character cards. I decided that I must be the outlaw whose gang was just wiped out and I barely survived. Morgan played a wealthy rancher. Will played an angry kid bent on being his own outlaw. Laura played the school mistress of the town.

Early on Morgan established that his character’s son had been killed and I latched onto the idea that my character had been the one who killed him. Shortly thereafter it was established that Will’s character was his other son. Awesome, I decided that I needed to try and have Will’s character survive. This play priority is important. I didn’t care about my character’s own survival. I cared about his redemption and the possibility of Will’s character surviving is what motivated my play.

Well, Morgan’s rancher was the first to fall to the zombies and shortly there after my outlaw knocked out Laura’s school mistress when she refused to believe in the zombie threat and carried her off over his shoulder. I noticed at this point we were one of those lovely non-family families that tend to form in fiction where the father stand in, the mother stand in, and child stand in had better learn to operate like a family or they’re all going to die. Awesome. The stakes got higher. My play priority changed. We all have to make it. The family must survive. I said as much at the time.

Over the next few rounds I sacrificed my character numerous times to keep either the kid or the school mistress from getting eaten. There came a point where all three of us were on the same square. I pointed out that we could theoretically survive if we had no more conflicts. All we would have to do is narrate scenes without conflict until it was Morgan’s turn at which point we gang up on the zombies and advance. We live together or we all die together if we stop having conflicts. Fictionally the state of affairs would have accommodated this lull in the action quite nicely because we were locked in a second story room of the inn, a fairly secure position easily justifying a few scenes of just talking.

Well, no one listened to me and they jumped right back in with the conflicts. I would like to point out that according to the rules I had the right to “Back Down” but what was proposed my character was genuinely opposed to, so I stood against it… and won. This would have gotten both the kid and the school mistress eaten. Finally the point had come where my character had to choose. He saved the kid.

It was then pointed out to me that the zombies move on the next turn which meant that sacrificing myself to save the kid only meant that we died together. I was fine with that. The outlaw and the kid were partners at least… in death.

It was extremely satisfying. However, I think that satisfaction was due to some very lucky setup that established the characters very rapidly even with people jumping to conflict. The second game we played was not so fortunate.

We decided to play a game set in a Renaissance Faire. Will played one of the guests and said he had a nagging wife. I decided to play the nagging wife and we had two kids. Morgan played a woman swashbuckler and Laura played the Asian girl bitter she was never cast as Queen Elizabeth.

Early on there was a lot of potential for an interesting story about a man stuck between his family and two potentially younger more playful women. It didn’t happen. We jumped out of the gate over whether Will’s character was going to get his nagging wife lemonade or not and all that room for character development pretty much got squandered. The result was an interesting action-movie romp ending with Morgan’s character in a 300-esq standoff with horseback ridding zombies but it just didn’t carry the weight that first game did.

Passionate Play #2: It’s Worth Risking What You Want

Posted in Actual Play on August 18, 2008 by jburneko

I’d like to share a couple more scenes from my recent Grey Ranks game that hopefully illustrates my points about Character Advocacy, legitimate tension, and emotional vulnerability. Throughout the game my character, Roman had been staving off the advances of Ludwika (“the patriotic slut”). He in turn had been trying to get across to her why his faith was so important. As mentioned in my previous post about this game it came into play that Ludwika was pregnant.

To acknowledge the parallel with my sister that Laura wanted I set up a scene where Roman was going to tell Ludwika that he’d marry her when the war was over so that her child wouldn’t grow up with without a father. Now, understand that I, personally, wanted her to say, “Yes.” Indeed I probably could have just narrated her saying, “Yes” and made my goal for the scene something else. But that’s not very interesting. My investment in the scene was in whether or not Roman would convince Ludwika to marry him. That’s what he was trying to accomplish in the scene. Any wiggling on my part would have constituted an emotional dodge.

So that’s what I set as Roman’s goal, “Ludwika agrees to marry him after the war.” My target number was seven. I was rolling a d10. Things did not look good. I rolled. I got an eight. I literally cheered. My stomach finally settled after doing a back flip. That’s the tension of playing passionately.

Now, I want to draw attention to the immediacy of that goal. All that happened was that right here, right now, Ludwika agrees to marry Roman after the war. Nothing says she will. There’s nothing about her state of mind and nothing about her loyalty to Roman. We have no idea if she wants to marry Roman. We only know that she has agreed to do so. This is important.

Later in the game Colin frames his own personal scene with Ludwika and his character Grom. Grom has had his eyes on Ludwika. The scene is Grom basically seeking comfort from Ludwika. His goal is to get Ludwika to sleep with him. I saw in his eyes he very much wanted it. I hope he saw in my eyes how much I did not want it. He rolled. He won. That bastard.

We played passionately.

I deliberately left it vague and unstated whether Roman ever found out about Ludwika’s betrayal. They did get married after the war.

Passionate Play #1: The Unwanted Pregnancy

Posted in Actual Play on August 13, 2008 by jburneko

Here’s an example from my recent Grey Ranks game that illustrates some of the ideas I’ve been discussing. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Grey Ranks is about the failed Warsaw uprising during World War II and the child soldiers who fought in it. My character, Roman was a very religious 16 year old and had a hero worship of his similarly faithful sister. During setup I noted that Roman’s sister had been raped by the Nazis during the initial invasion of Poland. I made it clear that this had not shaken her faith and that’s why he idolized her.

Early on I setup a scene where her fiancé was threatening to leave her because he was equally as religious and saw her as “tainted.” I asked my friend Colin to play the fiancé for the duration of the scene (the game is GMless). After some setup banter I described my young character (this was a flashback scene) running into the room crying and begging his “brother” not to leave. And that’s what I set as the goal for the conflict, “I want them to stay together.” I rolled and won.

Then Colin did something I did not anticipate. He described the fiancé embracing my sister and telling her that he would stay for the sake of the family. He made it VERY clear that while I had succeeded in keeping them together I HAD not dissipated the fiancé’s bitter and angry feelings. Additionally he noted that the source of the fiancé’s bitterness was that my character’s sister was pregnant. None of this is what I wanted at all. In my mind I was trying to heal their relationship. But I got my goal and Colin spun it (within his rights by the rules) in an unanticipated and initially unwanted (by me) direction.

That move by Colin has totally redefined how my character’s relationship with his sister and her family progressed. It has even influenced my character’s romantic relationship with Ludwika (an NPC Grey Rank with a reputation as “the patriotic slut.”). Laura choose to declare Ludwika pregnant (not by my character) in order to parallel that with my character’s sister. And none of that would have happened had I pre-roll narrated the entire outcome I wanted beyond the initial knee-jerk intent of “I want them to stay together.” At each of those two points I was forced to completely re-evaluate where I wanted my character to go.