Examine Your Source Material

Posted in Uncategorized on September 27, 2010 by jburneko

This article on The Forge by Ron Edwards is of relevance to the following article: Redefining Mainstream

We live in a world with A LOT of media.  We can’t engage all that’s avaialbe and certainly can’t begin to engage all there has ever been.   For the last few months I’ve been submerged in The Dresden Files.  I recently said to someone, “I don’t really like them, but I can’t stop reading them.”  To me that says the first part of my statement was a lie.  I must be liking them on some level or I’d have stopped.  Further, to its credit, The Dresden Files is the only book series of its kind I’ve been able to stick with at all.  I stopped reading Harry Potter after book three.  Hell, I can’t even make it past the first book of Lord of the Rings.

This has been a life long problem.  The media I enjoy most doesn’t seem to line up with my other hobbies and interests.  Growing up I got handed a lot of Asimov and Heinlien because I appeared to be “that kind of kid.”  But I found that stuff too dry and sanitary.  In school I was fed Tales of a Sixth Grade Nothing and Super Fudge and later Johnny Tremain which even at that age I would have told you didn’t have enough sex or violence.  I was pretty much convinced that books were dumb.

Until at the age of 15 I read “Phantom of the Opera.”  Whoa!  Where had THIS been all my life?  From there I moved to Dracula and then to Frankenstein.   Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde was soon to follow.  I jumped on to that teen trend of my generation and devoured a lot of Stephen King.  I even read Interview with the Vampire (which is pretty good when considered in isolation of the rest of the series).

Looking at other media I’m reminded that I didn’t read comic books until my early 20s and even then it was stuff like Sandman, Sin City, The Maxx, and GloomCookie.   I saw Amadeus four times in theater when I was 8 years old.  My favorite films of all time include Dangerous Liassons (and it’s modern twist Cruel Intentions), 12 Angry Men, and Shooting The Past.  Even my taste in video games runs more towards the cinematic with Monkey Island, Gabriel Knight and The Last Express topping the list and games like Silent Hill coming to the top of the more “actiony” pile.

As I said, it would be a lie to say I’m not enjoying The Dresden Files.  But the books are not engaging me in the kind of deep personal satisfaction that some books do.  This prompted me to take a cold hard look at my shelf and see what does make me feel that way.  I see James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet.  I see Dennis Lehane’s Patrick Kenzie novels.  I see Harriet The Spy (god damn, that book).  I see my GloomCookie comics.  I see A Series of Unfortunate Events (the author has admitted writing the series from the same frustration I had with childhood reading).  I see Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden and Patrick McGrath’s Asylum.  I see Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane books.  I see The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales and Mathew Lewis’ The Monk.

Now, I generally keep on top of geek pop-culture.  I’ve seen almost all of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  I’m, as I’ve said, reading The Dresden Files.  I’m a long time Doctor Who fan.  I’ve read Watchmen and seen the movie.  I’ve watched a fair number of Anime.   There is stuff in there I enjoy and some of it even produces that deep sense of personal satisfaction.  But my point is there’s a profound pattern that emerges when I cut away, “stuff I enjoyed” from “stuff that’s genuinely inspirational to me.”

By now you’re probably asking what has any of this got do with role-playing?  I looked at my shelf and I realized holy shit, I’m HIM.  I’m THE GUY.   I am the dude we keep talking about in various places around the internet.  You know, the guy who by all cultural logic *shouldn’t* be role-playing.  I’m the guy with deep literary and creative investment but NOT in traditional gamer/geek source material.

Whenever a big blockbuster movie comes out there’s usually a number of threads that pop up around the internet about “how do we role-play this?”   When I walked out of Inception I knew exactly what was going to happen in gamer-dom.  There would be a number of people talking about how to role-play Inception but largely focusing on the team heist element and the multiple layers of reality and different time scales.  Something told me I’m one of the few who walked out thinking, “Gee, how do I create a role-playing game where the players delve into their own psyche and confront hostile manifestations of their own guilt?”  Oh wait, I already wrote that game.

My point to all this is that we live in a very noisey media filled world.  And I’m going to go against conventional wisdom and say that most of it has a lot of merit on some level for a wide variety of reasons.  But my experience with The Dresden Files and my book shelf have reminded me that there’s a gap between simply what one enjoys and what actually speaks to one on a personal deep inspirational level.

So I ask you, look at your media.  Draw that line in the sand.  What have you enjoyed vs. what has gotten really and truly under your skin and into your heart?  What would role-playing with THAT material alone look like?

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?

Play Passionately: State of the Union

Posted in Uncategorized on May 25, 2010 by jburneko

At the beginning of the year Claudia Cangini contacted me about translating some of my Play Passionately articles for publication at an event she was organizing.  Unfortunately, the articles here are written in a blog context and so I offered to write a ground up essay.  The result is this survey of the principles behind Play Passionately.  Having been translated into Itallian it marks my first foreign language publication.  It originally appeared in “Riflessioni Appassionate” a publication distributed at InterNosCon 2010.

Additionally, if you have not seen the work of Narrativa you are missing out.  They take simple book design and create works of art.

Play Passionately: The Social Risks of Story Creation

Story is a problematic word when it comes to RPGs.  To some, a story is just a causal sequence of fictional events and a good story is one that simply indulges the imagination.  If the character got to ride a dinosaur on the moon and stave off an invasion of Martian vampires then that was a good story.  Such a definition of story has never been satisfying for me and the fiction produced from such play has always felt hollow and devoid of emotional truth.  To me, a good story must reveal something about the characters as real human beings no matter how fantastical their circumstances.  I crave a certain kind of emotional intimacy, revelation and resolution that speaks to recognizable human issues.

Since role-playing happens face-to-face getting that kind of emotional resonance requires a degree of honesty, self-reflection and social vulnerability in ways that I think many gamers find uncomfortable.  Indeed I think that a great number of “story oriented” gamers have spent a great deal of time and energy developing techniques that remove that need for vulnerability.  By removing that risk these techniques not only diminish the emotional rewards of story creation but also unintentionally introduce new social tensions and stresses that further complicate the role-playing experience.  It is my intention to layout a few “best practices” for opening yourself to the levels of creative risk that routinely produces high-impact emotional narratives.  Collectively I refer to the philosophy underlying these techniques as Play Passionately.

The first step is learning to define a character based on his crisis rather than his capabilities.  I’ve seen many systems lauded on various internet forums because they yield “predictable” results.  What that seems to mean is that the player succeeds when he’s expected to succeed.  I’ve often seen this coupled with a notion that the GM should contrive a reason for a re-roll when an “outlier” result happens.  The general message is that the player constructs a character around what he wishes to see the character do.  The GM then basically queues up a rotating bevy of obstacles such that the “talking” guy deals with social problems and the “fighting” guy deals with physical threats and so on…

The problem with this is that outside this niche-driven spotlight rotation method investing in a character’s capabilities can lead to immense disappointment and frustration.  If what I care about is the fact that my guy can “talk his way out of anything” then anytime I fail to talk my way out of something then my one point of investment in the game has been blocked.

I was running a game of Sorcerer and after the first session one of the players commented that she didn’t like how much the die system redefined her character.  When I asked for clarification it turned out that there had been certain key moments where she had failed a die roll and in those moments her character concept had been redefined because the character she wanted to play “would have” succeeded at those things.  She had failed in those moments and her actual idea of who the character was had been altered.

The key to avoiding this disappointment is to shift focus away from thinking about what the character is supposed to accomplish and start thinking about the character in terms of what crisis he is confronting.  When a player invests in the character’s crisis the paths to satisfaction become less confined.  If my character is defined by his struggle with his religion then any set of events and resolutions which speak to that struggle will be satisfactory.  Maybe he drives his family away with his zealousness.  Maybe he abandons it all together.  Maybe he learns to keep it quiet so he can co-exist with his best friend.  What happens almost doesn’t matter because what the player and the group care about is the character’s struggle with his religion.

That isn’t to say that a character’s approach to that struggle isn’t important.  If part of the character is that he’s willing to shoot someone to back up his religious beliefs then that matters.  In fact, it’s vital.   But saying, “This is a guy who’s willing to back up his beliefs with a gun” is very different from saying, “This is a guy who never misses a shot.”  The former raises questions and introduces elements of narrative risk.  Who is he going to shoot?  What happens if he succeeds?  What happens if he fails?  The later introduces a comfort zone in which the character can safely take action without risk to his image or ego.

Once we’re thinking about characters in terms of the crisis and struggles they deal with, it raises the question of how we pick a crisis for a given character.  I’m going to borrow a phrase from Seth Ben-Ezra’s jeepform inspired LARP exercise, “A Flower for Mara.”  The phrase is: “play close to home.”  What that means is construct characters that care about what you care about.  That’s not the same as playing yourself.  Many games, such as Primetime Adventures or Shock, ask you to pick a real-world issue the character is struggling with.  Often, I have seen players pick issues that are appropriate to the character concept but that they have no personal emotional stake in.  A very common example is a player who constructs some kind of religious figure and then gives him issues with faith.  The result is almost always a kind of cartoony fire-and-brimstone didactic character that rings hollow with regard to real faith.

It is not enough to simply pick a topic out of a literature textbook as that leads to over intellectualized and distanced play.  I suggest pulling from something that personally frightens you or that you struggle with.  This doesn’t have to be an exercise is personal psycho-therapy since often we can pull these elements directly from the game’s setting material that got us excited about playing the game in the first place.

For example, I was running My Life with Master (a game about playing minions in the service of an evil Master) and the group had built a Master who ate young women to steal their youth.  One particular player immediately said, “I know what minion I DON’T want to play.”  I looked right at them and I said, “No, that is exactly the minion you do want to play.”  The character concept was the Master’s butcher.  The thought of carving up young woman was absolutely horrifying to this player.  He did play the character and the game was better for it.  Every act he did was portrayed with genuine revulsion.  When the Master finally ordered him to turn on his own sister the anger and the defiance the player presented in the character was heart-breaking.  He took those strong negative emotions he had for the concept and channeled them into a power house engine for creative contribution.

Armed with a character defined by a crisis the player has some personal investment in the actual activity of role-playing becomes rather simple.  The player simply has to advocate for his character.  The character is active in an emotionally charged situation.  The player merely has to decide what the character wants and what action the character is willing to take to get it.  It should be said that this is not the same as playing optimally or playing to win.  The character may act quite rashly or in a manner that is counter-productive from an audience perspective.  All that is required is that the player says what the character is doing to fulfill his agenda.

This fundamental “job” for the player might seem obvious.  However, I have noticed a trend in some gaming circles for players to treat the characters as simply one component in a larger structural artifact often referred to as The Story.  Such play often involves manipulating the characters into situations with the intent of achieving highly specific outcomes for better or for worse.  This is most obvious when a player expresses a desire for his character to fail in a given situation.  Such behavior by the player is often defended as pushing for an outcome that is more dramatic.

However, what is often over looked is that such behavior is fundamentally manipulative.  Emotional engagement has ceased to arise from honest connection with the characters and their crises and moved into the social arena where “dramatic effect” is to be owned and delivered to each other with calculated effect.  The behavior often leads to social competition under the guise of co-operation as players begin to “one up” each other for status and recognition over their dramatic contributions.

This phenomenon is most easily observed in Stake setting games such as Primetime Adventures when players have ceased to set Stakes centered on what their characters want out of a given scene but instead shift to settling creative disputes between players directly.  “If I win, then Alice and Bob’s affair is discovered by Carl but if you win then Alice gets pregnant but Carl doesn’t know it isn’t his.”  The characters in the developing fiction have stopped taking directed action at all.  The players are put in the position of having to manipulate and spend game resources to defend their creative input.  The mechanics have ceased to resolve imagined tension between characters within the fiction and instead have moved to resolving real creative tension among the players.  The game simply becomes a wrestling match between the players over narrative direction.

Somewhat ironically I believe that such behavior is an attempt to reduce tension.  I have come to the conclusion that many gamers value drama but actually shy away from tension.  By drama I mean emotive character play such as lying, betrayal, threats, grand speeches, mysterious behavior and so forth.  By tension I mean actual trepidation over potential outcomes when characters come into active conflict.  In many ways, it is emotionally safer for a player to manipulate his character into a calculated dramatic failure rather than honestly pushing the character’s agenda with no certainty to how things will resolve.

In many ways, players turn to an ideal abstracted story structure as a way to introduce assurances about outcomes.  When play deviates from those structural story assumptions, the defensive response is to say that the story has been “ruined.”  However, when story is viewed as the by product of emotionally charged characters in motion and conflict rather than a list of pre-play guarantees about how characters behave, what they can achieve, and how the situation will generally resolve, then any unexpected moment simply becomes an opportunity for self-reflection and re-evaluation.  A story can not be ruined (assuming it arises from genuine character-driven decisions, actions and conflicts). Only player expectations about what kind of story his character was in can be ruined.

In many ways a great deal of trust is required to drop these expectations and take a character loaded with personally evocative emotional issues and launch him into uncertain action.  It requires trust that your fellow players have sympathy and interest in your creative investment.  It requires trust that the game at hand is designed to allow passionate expression of characters and conflicts.  I do not deny that this is asking a lot.  When it pays off it pays off big.  The play experience and fiction generated is emotionally riveting.

However, when it fails, it fails pretty spectacularly and can result in much anxiety and hurt feelings.  You can not be afraid to fail.  Without risk there can be little reward.  Creative endeavors are huge social risks.  My advice is to embrace that and play with others who are willing to embrace that.  You don’t need to protect yourself from falling if everyone is willing to fall together.  I’ve had games that simply didn’t work and in each case the play group simply shelved the game and moved on.

To me, a good game is one that produces a great story but a great game is one that reveals insight into me or my friends that I might not have seen otherwise.  RPGs can be a great medium for building empathy and bonds of friendships between people.  However, that can only happen among players who are willing to put a little of themselves on the table to be examined.  That level of social vulnerably requires playing honestly, playing intently and playing passionately.

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 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.

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.

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.