Archive for the Core Principles Category

The Object of the Game

Posted in Core Principles, Design on June 2, 2010 by jburneko

So, my group recently played Diaspora. You can hear us talk about it on our podcast Actual People, Actual Play. During one of the episodes I raised some points that Will thought was worth me elaborating on in an article. I’m hesitant because my points are largely issues of design and I want to keep Play Passionately focused on principles of play. However, once in a while I have a point about play that touches on points of design. So I’m going to create a new section of the blog called “The Design Sidebar” for when I want to talk about things that sit right at that border.

Let me start by saying that our Diaspora game came to a screeching halt because of a serious miscommunication over what exactly we were doing with the game. That wording is pretty important. We had some hiccups over imaginative stuff like what was and wasn’t appropriate for the “genre.” But the much bigger issue was that even though we all understood the tools in our hands we simply weren’t putting it to the same use. I realized that what happened to us is illustrative of what I consider the Number 1 design problem across the majority of RPGs.

Other types of games have a rather crucial design component that the majority of RPGs lack. Most games call this feature the Object of the game. Object is, of course, derived from Objective because most other forms of game are competitive. Many RPGs are not competitive which is probably where the confusion that they some how don’t need an Object arose in the first place.

However, the Object of the game tells you something much more important than just “how to win.” It tells you to what use the rest of the rules of the game are intended to be put. Imagine for a moment if I explained all the rules of chess in terms of how pieces move and how pieces get captured and promoted and so forth but I never told you that the object of the game was “to capture the king.” Instead I simply told you that you had “to win” or worse, “just have fun.” What do you think would happen?

I think what would happen to that chess match is pretty much what happened in our Diaspora game and what I suspect happens to a lot of games that fall apart and never reach a conclusion. Telling the group “to have fun” is not productive. Telling the group “to tell an awesome story” is about on the same level as telling the group to “to win.” Neither of those statements tells you what those phrases mean in the context of the rule set at hand. How I win with Chess is not the same with how I win with Poker. Similarly how I tell a great story with Sorcerer is not the same as how I tell a great story with Grey Ranks.

In my opinion the greatest innovation in “indie” game design in the last 10 years hasn’t been “narration trading” or “conflict resolution” or “relationship mechanics” but rather the return and inclusion of a very basic game design principle: The Object of the Game. Some of these games include very tangible and more traditional sounding objects. For example The Shab-al-Hiri Roach tangibly tracks reputation and tells you the object of the game is fight for it. InSpectres tells you that you have to complete investigative missions while keeping the company afloat and tracks that with Franchise dice.

However, the object of the game doesn’t have to be that concretely mechanized and gamey as that. For example, the object of Burning Wheel is to challenge the character’s Beliefs. The object of Sorcerer is to heighten and resolve the crisis expressed in the character’s Kicker. I’m simplifying the above examples a bit because a lot of RPGs that feature GMs actually have asymmetrical objects. For example the object of the GM in Dogs in the Vineyard is to reveal the town and escalate conflicts while the object of the players to pass judgment and resolve the town’s problems.

Once you understand the object of the game all the other rules fall into alignment. The object is the North Star of play and properly orients the standards of participation. Once the object of the game is known then “good play” and “bad play” becomes a quantifiable and observable standard. An applied rule or technique either moves the group towards the object or away from it.

In our Diaspora game Will, as the GM, was operating under the assumption that the game was fairly episodic in structure. He assumed the object of the game was to deal with a string of sci-fi space encounters as you moved relatively quickly from place to place. I, on the other hand, assumed the object of the game was to pursue my character’s personal goals (my default assumption and preference when the game fails to tell me otherwise). Since we were playing towards two different objectives the game ground to a halt. Will kept considering things done and resolved while I was considering those same situations just the tip of the iceberg.

Which one of us was “correct”? The text of Diaspora is utterly silent on the matter. Indeed we agreed that the game probably could have supported either approach equally well and we simply failed to come to a coherent agreement on which one we were doing this time around. That suggests leaving the object out of a game is perhaps a valid design decision. However, what I’d like to see from such games is more textual acknowledgment that, that crucial design step is required to be taken by the group. I’d like to see more instruction on how to take that design step. Even my tinker toy set as a child came with a set of prefab blueprints to get you started.

Jarred Sorensen once remarked that rule sets like GURPS are not games but are in fact toys. He argued that GURPS was a toy from which each individual group was required to design and develop their own game. I am further arguing that the line between game and toy is whether or not a clear Object for the game is stated. When I mentioned this to Will he pointed out that games like GURPS develop a strong culture around them regarding how they are intended to be played.

He is one hundred percent correct. And I find that statement down right frightening. I ask you this: Are RPGs something you can go to the store, buy, read and play right then and there or is it an oral tradition that you have to be introduced and mentored into by someone already in the hobby. I phrased that sentence very charitably as my first instinct was to use the phrase, “indoctrinated in to” but I’d like to assume that most people are just enthusiastically sharing their hobbies with others and not selectively bringing people into the secret inner circle of the elite.

Along those lines I leave you with this chilling proposition: The five people who played in our Diaspora game are all fairly self-reflective individuals. We’re keenly aware of our preferences and have a pod-cast dedicated to critically thinking about our play. If the five of us totally failed to form a coherent consensus on what we were trying to accomplish with a game, what HOPE does the new comer who wants to check out these “RPG things” have of doing so if the games refuse to instruct them?

Social Responsibility And Honest Adversity

Posted in Core Principles on February 26, 2010 by jburneko

I was talking to Paul Czege about his game Acts of Evil.  He mentioned to me that he was having trouble getting the players to engage the game with honesty and authenticity.  Instead he said the result was kind of cartoony horror porn.  When I asked him to clarify what he meant I realized that he wants the players to go to the same kind of mental space I go to when I run My Life with Master.

When I run My Life with Master I go to an extremely dark and personal place in my mind.  It’s the place where my programmer trained logical intelligence and my romantic ideals touch.  It’s the place where I can rationalize any human behavior as ultimately in service of some higher ideal or virtue.  It’s a cold and dark place but it’s beautiful and entrancing as well.  Going there makes my Masters very genuine and authentic because it’s a very real, very human if somewhat scary and uncomfortable part of who I am.  If you want to see me in top form as a GM play My Life with Master with me.

So, I was trying to figure out what makes taking that long, dark trip into ones own soul fun because it seemed to me that, that is what Paul wants Acts of Evil to be.  I realized there are other games that require similarly self-reflectively dark journeys.  It’s required to play the Demons (and certain Sorcerers) in Sorcerer.  It’s required to play Mara in a Flower for Mara.  I came to a rather interesting conclusion: It’s fun and rewarding to go to those dark and secret places of our selves in those games because the players are empowered to fight back.

When I’m running My Life with Master I know the players have the tools to fight me.  They can at least attempt to resist my commands.  They can earn Love points (easily I might ad).  Eventually the Master is going to get killed.  I even said to Paul, “In a very real sense I do not have to live with myself after running My Life with Master.”  It’s cathartic for the GM to bring that scary part of himself to the surface and watch it get killed by the players.

Sorcerer is a little less safe because that part of the outcome is not fixed like in My Life with Master.  However, the principle still applies in that the rules are robust and the players have the tools to fight back.  The players always have access to tools to push back just as hard as the GM is pushing them.

A Flower for Mara is a very interesting case of this being on a purely social level.  The Mara player is absolutely not responsible for the group’s emotional safety.  More importantly it would socially irresponsible and dangerous if she were.  The Director is responsible for providing that safety.  Mara is free to completely lose herself in her emotional antagonism because someone else is responsible for making the call on whether things are getting out of hand.

After thinking this through I realized that this is at the root of my utter loathing for the RPG school of thought where the GM is responsible for “arbitrating” rules up to and including inventing new rules on the fly.  It completely sucks, is stressful and is completely no fun to be responsible for both playing honest, self-reflective, darkly personal adversity AND for the group’s emotional safety and fun.  I require the game rules to be robust in empowering the players to push back against my unconstrained emotional creative input without me having to break off from that emotional space to make sure everything is being handled “fairly.”

Why The GM Is Not A Sadist

Posted in Core Principles on May 13, 2009 by jburneko

When I was first starting the Play Passionately project I described the whole idea to a friend of mine.  I talked about being vulnerable and loading up characters with issues near and dear to our own hearts.  The response I got was something along the lines of, “That’s easy for you to say.  You are almost always the GM.  It’s safe there.”  I had somehow given the impression that in my play the GM is a sadist who simply indulges in emotionally torturing the players who incur all the risks of that vulnerability.  I realized I need to talk about Play Passionately from the point of view of the GM.

On the front page of this blog I describe two forms of social risk.  The first form is common to all creative endeavors: failure.  A given game might simply suck or be no-fun.  Different games distribute responsibilities among the players including the GM differently.  I often talk about a concept I call the Social Mandate.  The Social Mandate is the central core creative effort a player has to bring to a game in order for the rest of its systemic components to function as intended.

In Dungeons and Dragons the GM has the Social Mandate to bring a challenging and balanced adventure.  If he doesn’t, the game won’t be any fun.  Period.  This is not a bad thing.  In fact, it’s not that different from the GM’s Social Mandate in Dogs in the Vineyard which is to bring a morally and emotional engaging town.  If he doesn’t, the game won’t be any fun.  Period.

In the games I most enjoy GMing the GM carries a lot of creative risk because these games require the GM to be the organizational fuel that give the players the opportunity to engage the game in a meaningful manner.  As noted in Dogs in the Vineyard that’s bringing the town.  In Sorcerer it’s challenging the elements on the back of the players’ character sheets.  In My Life with Master it’s playing The Master in as threatening a manner as possible.

These are skills.  They’re all different skills.  So, like any other skill you might be bad at it.  You might fail.  And that’s okay.  That’s a good thing.  If nothing else it humbles the GM to one of creative equality with the players.  Everyone at the table has a Social Mandate and if you don’t bring it, the game will fail.

So how does the GM avoid failure?  With Dungeons and Dragons the GM has all kinds of mathematical tools at his disposal to ensure the right amount of challenge. But for games like Dogs in the Vineyard and Sorcerer the single greatest tool the GM has for bringing emotional and morally engaging content to the table is himself.  This brings me to the second element of social risk: emotional vulnerability.  That is, the game’s fiction might get personally painful.

As much as I want the players to load up their characters with issues that speak to them, as the GM I load up my scenarios with issues that speak to me.  I’m not happy with a Dogs in the Vineyard town until it disturbs me.  I’ve found that being an intellectual curiosity like a “what if” question out of Ethics 101 leads to weak play.  I know I’ve got a good town when contemplating it troubles me personally.  With Sorcerer I write until I’m scared.  I write until I’m utterly terrified of the Things slithering among the characters and the actions that have allowed such Things to exist.  For My Life with Master I find what in The Master I genuinely love.  The Master is defined as unlovable and yet it falls to the GM to love him.

Yes, the GM is often working with raw material collaboratively created by the players.  But for these games to work the GM must take ownership of that material.  He must infuse it with what is important to him, with what speaks to him.  That is how creative synergy is formed across the group.  The players have told you these things are important to them, now you must answer why they are important to you.

Then that material hits the table.  Do you know what comes next?  The players judge it.  The players look at what’s going on, judge it and take action.  These actions express their judgment and very often run counter to the feelings you had about the material going into the game.  You have not played passionately until you’ve built a character that you have nothing but love and sympathy for and have a player suddenly treat him with contempt.

This is why the GM is not a sadist.  In terms of emotional vulnerability the GM has to go first.  For play to challenge the players emotionally the fiction must be in motion.  While the players often create the raw material for the game’s fiction it’s the GM who first puts it into motion.  It’s the collision points between what the players are emotionally invested in and what the GM is emotionally invested in that gives Play Passionately its juice as well as its risks.

The Culture of Outcome

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

Over on 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.

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.

Role-Playing And Narrative Structure

Posted in Core Principles on December 30, 2008 by jburneko

In various threads around the internet and in conversations about role-playing I sometimes hear people use the phrase, “but role-playing games aren’t movies or novels.” Often I think this is an overly defensive statement coming from play preferences that aren’t story oriented. However, there lies a bit of truth in it if what you’re talking about is the structural nature of the specific medium.

The game Spione uses the phrase, “content dynamics of fiction” to describe the nature of the communicated narrative. I think that’s an interesting choice of words because it implies that something can have the emotional resonance of a story without the structural rhythm of a film or novel. I think this is an important feature of the medium of role-playing that often doesn’t get discussed and when it gets discussed it is often purely in terms of trying to preserve the structural integrity of the created fiction.

Consider the numerous discussions on the “kinds of” stories you see when talking about genre heavy role-playing. Much of the discussion focuses on insuring that the developing narrative retains that expected shape. You see this a lot with discussions about super-heroes and how to guarantee that the players fail in the beginning but triumph in the end. I think such discussion is counter-productive if what you’re really looking for is the emotional resonance of the superhero struggle.

Take a look at the game “It Was A Mutual Decision,” a game about a couple going through a romantic break up. The entire second “Chapter” of play consists of alternating scenes between the man and woman in which each one faces a pro-offered opportunity that will weaken the relationship. This second “Chapter” can go on for a while. If you were to translate it verbatim into a film or novel it would be terrible from a structural point of view. Even the scenes that would make the final cut would need other scenes written in between them to give them context. During the game the content of what would form the basis for those intermediate scenes gets discussed, but it does not get played.

What the game is doing is creating a kind of creative “trial and error” process to tease out what the group thinks the real priorities of this couple are. The scenes themselves, in the moment of play, are not uninteresting or wasteful but they do not flow in the same kind of structural rhythm you would see in a novel or film. Another game that relies on a similar “trial and error” process is My Life with Master which repeatedly executes the cycle of The Master sending his minions out to do ever increasingly horrible tasks to find the real emotional breaking point of the character (as interpreted by the player). Again, watching that cycle in a film would be tedious but the social conditions of having it happen in a role-playing game keep it fresh and exciting.

In discussions on story in role-playing games I would like to see more focus on that idea of “content dynamics” or as I call it emotional resonance and less focus on the structural flow of “kinds of” stories or the functional roles of “kinds of” characters. I think that by treating role-playing as a unique medium and exploring how to create the emotional resonance of fiction socially without being tied to the structural components of other mediums is fruitful food for thought.

Overly Processing Play With The Rules

Posted in Core Principles on November 4, 2008 by jburneko

If you asked me ten years ago what I wanted out of an RPG I would have said this: “I want a game that when played optimally by computers will produce a compelling narrative.” I’m not joking. I was a firm believer that a system more or less has to compel players to do interesting things, otherwise they won’t.

That may sound absurd but I still see variations of that attitude taken to different extremes lingering in the hobby. I see people who interpret the fact that you get a bonus from applying a trait in a game like Primetime Adventures means traits are about getting people to “act like” those traits. Or indeed I see people stretching (quite painfully) in every scene to try and make their traits relevant.

Basically what I’m seeing here is a system foremost (rather than a system matters) attitude. I see attempts to engage the system directly and see what it “wants” the person to do fictionally. This article is about how that process is backwards.

Some games are robust enough to handle a system foremost approach. Dogs in the Vineyard is an example. You can pretty much grind out the rules of that game in a semi-mechanized manner and something interesting will likely result. I think this is because Dogs in the Vineyard puts in so many other social constraints that a mechanistic approach to system works. Everyone knows they are Dogs. Everyone knows a Dog’s job is to solve the problems of the town. Everyone knows the four major moral “break” points of conflict are Talking, Physical, Violence and Guns.

So if you basically go into every conflict starting at Talking and the GM always pushes and pushes as hard as he can and the player constantly assesses at each break point, “Is this worth the next step?” then you get a fairly straightforward narrative. I mean, after all, that’s what the system clearly “wants” you to do, right? Well, the game doesn’t disintegrate if you play it that way but it makes for a fairly boring game. It also misses on some fairly nuanced and exciting application of the rules.

One of the things some people are quick to point out is that you don’t need to go all the way to Gun Fighting to get all your dice. So if I mechanically don’t NEED to go to gun fighting doesn’t that weaken the temptation? The fact that you don’t need to go to gun fighting to get all your dice makes the decision to start shooting more powerful. It turns the spotlight AWAY from the dice and firmly back on the player as an emotional entity. There are enough dark circles and bold underlines around guns in the game that their relevance as a component of the fiction is loud and clear. Does your engagement with your character and the fiction warrant shooting?

Another thing to take note of is that escalation is not a linear progression. You can start in of the four arenas and “escalate” to any of the four other arenas and even return to arenas you’ve already been to. From that perspective “escalating” is really more about unifying different conflict methodologies (by keeping their application consistent via the Raise system while changing their severity through different size fallout dice) than “temptation.” Considering shooting, then talking, then shooting some more then dropping your gun and throwing a punch makes for a much more dynamic conflict landscape.

Finally, my personal favorite emotional tool is Giving. You don’t have to Give only at the “break” points. You can Give anytime you want and that includes the GM. When Giving is on the table at every point it becomes one of the most powerful thematic markers in the entire game. It allows the “target” of a Raise to socially acknowledge that they’ve been emotionally defeated. The chance to say that what’s been said, fictionally, is compelling enough, to them, that there’s no point in going on.

Applying these nuances requires a fiction first approach to the game. Instead of looking at the system as what shapes the fiction look at how to express the fiction through the system. That’s why system matters. It’s not because systems constrain player behavior to an “appropriate” set of fictional input. It’s because they shape how your fictional input gets mechanically expressed. The commitment to quality fictional input has to come first. This approach requires thinking, feeling and doing what feels emotionally right to you as audience and author and then reaching out and applying the tools given to you to express that commitment.

As I said earlier Dogs in the Vineyard is fairly robust as to not disintegrate if you play it in the mechanistic manner. However there are some games that will disintegrate if you don’t treat them in a fiction first manner. Sorcerer is an example. From a fiction first approach it’s fairly clear to see that Demon Needs and Desires, Humanity, Kickers, Price and Descriptors all work in a fairly sophisticated concert even though there is no mathematically connection between them. They are rules and design but require artistry and skill to apply. Sorcerer would not be better served by giving demon’s Need points that fuel their Abilities and when the demon runs out of Need points you can recharge them by transferring your Humanity points and narrating some awful thing you do to justify the transfer.

Dirty Secrets is similar. That game is fueled almost entirely by the player’s opinions of the characters and their willingness to express them. The grid is less about generating a surprising random outcome and more about voting. Because the grid is used for all the crimes you’re voting for a given character to be guilty of something. It’s the height of being judgmental. The scary thing about Dirty Secrets is that the only thing you are given to form your *initial* opinion is demographics. That’s by design. But if you don’t put your feelings at the forefront of the application of the rules then the game falls flat.

My point here is that viewing rules and design as a “story sausage grinder” that so perfectly limits the player’s input and so perfectly processes that input to be “thematically acceptable” ultimately leads to predictable and flat play. When it gets discussed it appears to be a well meaning effort to eliminate the possibility of creative failure or perhaps an attempt to “unify” players such that “anyone” can play successfully (together) as long as they follow the rules. To all that I can only say without emotional and creative risk there is rarely as great an emotional and creative reward.

Why I Hate Fun

Posted in Core Principles on October 12, 2008 by jburneko

I hate fun. Or rather, I hate the word “fun” but I get accused of hating fun itself from time to time. When explaining my play preferences to others, I am often met with the phrase, “I prefer to just have fun.” I find that highly insulting as it suggests that what I’m talking about somehow isn’t fun.

I hope the idea that what one person finds fun another person might find tediously dull has become obvious and second nature to most of gamer culture by now. That point isn’t the focus of this article. Instead I want to talk about an interesting trend I’ve noticed among those who do share my play preferences (at least to the point that I’ve played games I like with them successfully). The trend I’ve noticed is their reluctance to describe the play experience as “fun.”

What I’ve recently learned is that, for some, the word “fun” carries with it a sense of frivolity. As such people are reluctant to apply the word “fun” to something something like Grey Ranks. Instead they use words like “satisfying” or “rewarding” or “worthwhile.” Which is odd to me because if something isn’t “satisfying,” “rewarding,” or “worthwhile” to me then it isn’t “fun” either. I simply do not attach that same sense of frivolousness to “fun” that some people do. So to me, Grey Ranks is simply fun.

More recently I played “A Flower for Mara” during which I revealed one of my most foundational childhood moments and cried through out the whole thing. I still had fun and was very entertained even though the profound emotional effect of the game took almost two full days to wear off. In the past I’ve been accused of enjoying “social violence,” of being “an emotional masochist,” and even being a “sadistic” GM. Maybe I am but I would never do any of that without my fellow players’ consent.

This has unfortunately created the impression, to some, that I don’t like games with strong color. This is highly inaccurate because color is extremely important to me. What I don’t like is reveling in color for color’s sake. It’s not that I don’t enjoy punching robot Nazis in the face, it’s that I want my punching robot Nazi’s in the face to be grounded in something recognizably human beyond simply enjoying the image of my character punching a robot Nazi in the face.

That said, I fully admit that my colors of choice tend to run blood red, passion purple and moral grey but they’re bright vivid and highly contrasted glossy comic book shades of those colors. I prefer “It Was A Mutual Decision” over “A Flower For Mara” even though they both deal with highly personal, grief related emotions because the former has a wererat in it. I prefer “Dogs in the Vineyard” to “Dirty Secrets” because while they’re both about rooting out social corruption the former has demons and sorcerers in it. (Don’t get me wrong, I love and highly recommend “A Flower for Mara” and “Dirty Secrets” both very very much).

So in the end I will continue to use the word “fun” to describe my emotionally tumultuous play preferences. But please keep in mind that I like to be emotionally tumultuous while punching robot Nazi’s in the face.